In these three long short stories, Paul Auster takes the formulas and conventions of the detective story and gives them a good shaking. In each story, the lone male protagonist takes on a quest to find, protect or observe another person, and in each case they become so obsessed with their prey, so hollowed out from projecting themselves into the fantasy outlines of another, that their own identity shivers on the brink of implosion. Whereas the classic piece of crime fiction prides itself on solving puzzles, finding answers and producing meaning, these postmodern versions watch truth, identity and storytelling fall apart. And yet at the same time, the cool, measured voice of the narrative continues, unruffled, indomitable, because even when stories don’t work out and solutions can’t be found, there are still things to say.
Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, published in the mid-eighties remains a classic of postmodern writing, although notably absent is the quality of absurd playfulness that the postmodern is often accused of employing to make nothing much matter. These tales are anguished and bleak, the protagonists veering through bewilderment, madness and murderous rage as they butt heads against the solid core of mystery at the heart of who we are and why we behave as we do. But the lucidity and the intelligence of the narrative voice is consistently compelling, driving the reader on, and a sort of icy mist rises off the text, separating us from the characters in their extreme states; oddly, it doesn’t hurt to watch them suffer. Although they display very human reactions, Auster’s protagonists choose strange and eccentric paths, and I think this is what holds us away from their pain and keeps us thinking about, rather than feeling, their plight.
In ‘City of Glass’, the crime fiction writer, Quinn, is mistaken for a private eye named Paul Auster, and asked – well, invoked – to come and protect a man named Peter Stillman from his murderous father. Reluctantly, Quinn undertakes the case. When he meets Peter Stillman, the man explains his situation to him in a language that verges on meaninglessness. It turns out that his father kept him silent and isolated throughout his childhood as a kind of experiment in the acquisition of natural language. The young Stillman eventually escaped, his father was imprisoned, and Peter acquired some basic language skills, marrying his glamorous speech therapist, Virginia, in the process. It is Virginia who charges Quinn with protecting her husband, since Stillman senior has recently been released and is known to be jouneying towards his son.
In ‘Ghosts’, the private eye, Blue, is given the brief of watching a man, Black, by a mysterious third party, White. Blue is set up in an apartment across the street and paid to write weekly reports on Black’s activities. But Black doesn’t seem to be doing anything other than sitting at the desk by his window, writing. As Blue’s frustration mounts, so he finds ever more ingenious ways to get close to his prey and to uncover the purpose of his observations, and yet the closer he gets, the more perplexing the situation becomes.
In ‘The Locked Room’, the final story and in many ways the most accessible and ‘realistic’ of the trilogy, the first person narrator is given a strange legacy when his one-time best friend, Fanshawe, disappears and is presumed dead. The two men grew up together as next door neighbours, almost brothers, but Fanshawe was the resplendent one, the capable one, the one who seemed to know himself from an early age, and our narrator stood in his shadow. Now, he finds himself stepping into Fanshawe’s life. His friend had been lost in travels for many years, pursuing his need to write, and has left behind him a grieving wife, a newborn baby and a cupboard full of manuscripts. He has left word that the narrator, who is a journalist, should assess the literary merit of his work, and publish it if appropriate. Well, our narrator does that, seamlessly acquiring Fanshawe’s wife and child at the same time, and then his new life is cast into doubt when it appears that Fanshawe may not have died after all.
These are twisty, surprising stories, in which nothing is quite as it seems. The investigations undertaken raise more questions than they answer, and as the quests continue, so the stable markers of each narrator’s life begin to crumble. All of Auster’s characters seem to be writing, making notes, writing reports, telling stories, and questions are repeatedly raised about language’s ability to perform its essential job of creating meaning. In fact, what transpires in each of these stories is that acquiring knowledge breaks down into two processes – finding things out and making things up – and that, much like the investigator and his prey, the two soon become perilously indistinguishable from one another. Facts are meaningless without a narrative in which to situate them in relation to one another. But that narrative is supplied by the fevered brain of the one who seeks, who tries to make sense, and as such it returns him to the inside of his mind over and over, when he would break out of his own limits in order to be sure of seizing the truth. In the end, creativity itself seems to be on trial, guilty of luring us into a vertiginous hall of mirrors, under the disguise of rational thought.
A final word about gender: this is a book about men and it focuses on the way that men can easily lose themselves in pursuit of a goal. You don’t have to have a masculine mind to read it, but it helps. Very few women appear in its pages, although when they do, they are lacquered with the veneer of beauty and often assigned a pragmatic wisdom that the menfolk lack. I found it to be steeped in the qualities of a certain kind of masculinity – challenges to knowledge and authority abound, as do questions about the kind of identity that seeks to cohere itself around an abstract, noble pursuit and finds that it is only dislocated and emptied in consequence. I found it profoundly existential in tone, eager to strip away all the trappings of ordinary civilisation to see what stubbornly remains. I admired it immensely, but I was also more than ready when the last page came. It is a brilliantly clever book, but also a suffocating one.