The New York Trilogy

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.

19 thoughts on “The New York Trilogy

  1. That last line sums it up incredibly well, I think. Personally I didn’t make it past the first story, when I attempted this book a few years ago…I thought I would like it because I am such a die-hard fan of American Psycho , which is a deconstructionist classic if ever there was one. But that is also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, as well as being one of the most disturbing, whereas, as you astutely observe, Auster is notably lacking in playfulness. I found myself thinking: “Okay, if you took Raymond Chandler and gave him a lot of cocaine and got him lost in the middle of a labyrinth looking for the Minotaur, he might’ve written something like this.” And upon reflection, I decided life was just too short, despite the perversely entertaining spectacle, if you know what I mean.

  2. I’ve read only City of Glass (I’ve taught it now a couple of times too) and had a similar reaction to your conclusion here: it is very obviously a clever and artful book, but ultimately I found its kind of cleverness alienating.

  3. Nice review. It was the first Auster I read and I found it, at the time, to be absorbing and brilliant. Now you’ve got me wanting to read it again. Can’t ask more from a book review than that!

  4. I quite enjoyed this trilogy, but also relate to what your and Rohan’s remarks about its suffocating qualities. Don’t know if I would go quite so far as alienating, but these books definitely seemed quite cold to me. I gobbled them up and heartily enjoyed them while reading, but when I finished I questioned whether there was anything behind them, or whether they were just very clever, shiny facades. I’m glad there are books like this but even more glad that they’re not the ONLY option available, if you know what I mean.

  5. I think this one might be in one of my book piles🙂 Interesting note about gender. I will keep it in mind for when I find the book in the piles and read it (one day). I’ve not read Auster before but I have heard good things about him.

  6. This was one of the first Auster’s I read and I think this book can be an acquired taste – although I really enjoyed it. The book featured on a Radio 4 programme about a year ago and Vanessa Feltz was one of the people discussing it and her take on it was very amusing. She was not a fan and found the book utterly absurd.

    I too have been inspired to re-read this by your review!

  7. The New York trilogy was the first Auster I read – it must have been around 1990. I loved it! Afterwards I have been reading almost everything he has written. Even if his last novels are, to my mind, not that good at all … At the moment I believe his wife is a better storyteller.

    I have never considered the gender perspective in his writing, thanks for bringing it up – definitively an interesting aspect.

  8. I remember that I found the three parts very different. There was one I liked far more but cannot remember which one anymore. Since I discovered his wife’s writing I don’t read Auster anymore. There are certain parallels and I just found her to be the writer I like far better. His writing is quite artificial, while hers is artful.

  9. I have read Auster’s Book of Illusions, which didn’t really work for me, and Timbuktu, which was great although I wonder if it’s at all representative. When I think about reading more Auster, I balk at the coldness and detached quality you and others here wrote about. However, the idea of taking the conventions of crime fiction and playing with them sounds quite intriguing.

  10. Interesting. I own this and have thought of reading it since it is a crime novel (of sorts), but I’ll have to choose my time to read it carefully as I didn’t quite know it was experimental. I don’t always get on with these sorts of books when they feel more a labor than a pleasure to read. Still you never know. I wonder if all his work is like this?

  11. Great review, Litlove. Not for the first time, you really make me wish we were taking an English class together! I don’t miss academia AT ALL, but I do and will always miss the tutorial environment, and the opportunity it afforded to discuss texts as you do here. I completely concur, by the way. I enjoyed and admired Auster’s study of language, but I missed, say, DeLillo’s humour, and that clinical tenor you identify in The New York Trilogy stifled the work’s ability to move me. Indeed, the detachment seemed deliberately cultivated to an extreme degree, which begs a whole range of other questions about what Auster was hoping to achieve beyond earning the text the obvious ‘post-modern’ tag.

  12. Interesting… just wonder how you’d compare this with Capote’s In Cold Blood? I’ve always wanted to know what The NY Trilogy is all about. Thanks for this detailed review. But I just doubt that I’ve the stamina to read this though. I’ve read Auster’s The Music of Chance and thinks it’s brilliant. I’ve seen the movie adaptation too, and it’s just as good. I’ve always been curious about other Auster works.

  13. David – lol! What a brilliant description of Auster! Mister Litlove has read American Psycho and enjoyed it – if that’s the right verb. I don’t quite know why I hold back; I should give it a go. I never thought of it as being funny and that certainly starts to raise it up in my opinion (I am such a sucker for anything that makes me laugh). Auster is very serious and a tad dour. I did prefer both of the other stories to the first, though, although I cannot in all honesty say there were any more jokes.🙂

    Rohan – I should think they would be very good teaching vehicles. City of Glass was the story I liked least because it felt so Beckettian to me. Not that I dislike Beckett, I rather enjoy him, but he’s the only writer who should be allowed to do what he does! In many ways I liked the second story the most, which is the one no one notices or writes about, but I liked the way it interpolated lots and lots of stories that were being produced by this man alone in a room, trying to account for another man alone in a room. It was a bit more jolly than the other stories, I suppose!

    rebentley – welcome! I’ll be coming to visit you soon. I can see why people like Auster because he is such a clever writer, and he manages to twist lucidity into something monstrously irrational, which is quite the trick. I hope you find even more to enjoy when you reread.

    Emily – oh absolutely. The stories are so much a certain flavour, it would be like having to spend the rest of one’s life eating pear drops if there were no other sorts of books available! I generally like the postmodern thing very much, and I did appreciate the questions raised about identity and narrative (right up my research street). But yes, time to read something completely different, once I’d finished it.

    Stefanie – I shamefully have lots of Auster novels, and thought I really should start reading him. By other’s accounts, though, The New York Trilogy is quite different to his other novels. I’ll definitely read him again (just as well!).

    Random Reflections – thank you for stopping by! I did laugh when I read your comment as I cannot see this book and Vanessa Feltz as complementary to one another! And I can also see how you could spoof it mercilessly. But some of the things it does, it does excellently, and there is indeed much to enjoy here.

    Sigrun – it’s good to know that you enjoyed the rest of Auster’s output, as I have quite a few more novels by him in my possession. I also think you’re quite right that he’s been eclipsed by Siri Hustvedt lately (who is a luminous writer). But I’m definitely going to read more of what he’s written, and I’ll take your advice and start with the earlier novels.

    Lilian – well it’s very tempting to read just one or two of the stories. But that’s also a good thing – the reader can sample The New York Trilogy and then move on to something else!

    Caroline – same here, I felt very differently towards the three stories, although my personal favourite was the middle one, which I don’t think generally gets much attention. I’ve read both Auster and Hustvedt now and have admired them both and felt conflicted about both. And I’d like to read more of both their works.

    p2c2 – that is indeed a gorgeous cover! And I do hope you enjoy them – let me know what you think, if you can!

  14. Dorothy – this would be a brave choice for your mystery book club! Oh I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that one.🙂 It’s interesting how many varied reactions Auster produces, and I get the feeling that The New York Trilogy is quite different to his other work. I’m certainly keen enough now to try him again some day soon. (Not Book of Illlusions, perhaps!)

    Danielle – I think if you treated it as a book of three long short stories that you could read independently if you wanted to, that might work better. It’s quite a lot of postmodernism in one chunk otherwise. I get the impression that this is quite different to other novels written by Auster, and as I’m curious now to read more of him, I’ll let you know! You do have to be in the right mood for this, though. I mean, that’s fine! It’s just best to pick your moment.

    DoctorDi – ah wouldn’t it be fun to move the virtual salon into the real? I do feel very similarly to you, in that it seems no coincidence that Auster is a truncated form of austerity, because you do feel oddly deprived of real human contact at times in these stories. The game playing element dominates. For me that worked well in the middle story because it was so upfront, and less well in the other two stories which had a basis in a wounded, suffering individual. But they really are great to discuss, even if they aren’t always a laugh a minute to read.

    Arti – now isn’t that a fascinating comparison? In some ways, there are distinct similarities in the coldness both men bring to stories of what are extreme experiences. Yet Auster is happy for his tales to verge off into the realms of the fantastic. Although they all start plausible, the strangeness grows and takes over. In Capote’s book, he’s keen to make the reader understand how real his protagonists are, and he works hard to incorporate the strangeness of their behaviour and to show us that it comes from ordinary human places. That’s why Auster’s novel isn’t frightening at all, and Capote’s is terrifying. Thank you for the recommendation of The Music of Chance. I’d really like to read more of Auster now (although I agree, this one takes a bit of concentrated effort!).

  15. 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.

    This is exactly what I remember. In fact I recall feeling so suffocated by it that had I been blogging at the time I don’t think I would have been able to write a post nearly this clear and thoughtful about what was going on the whole time.

  16. Thanks for that clear review, it helped me understand why I tried to read this 3 times and never managed to finish the first story. You know I’m not good at literary categories and theories but reading here it is postmodernism explains why I abandoned it three times. Not my cup of tea. I’m not trying a fourth time.

  17. Thanks for the review. I bought this on a whim recently in a second-hand bookshop and am looking forward to reading it. This review has made me even more interested. Sorry you felt suffocated by the end, though – hope that doesn’t happen to me!

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