City of glass: A writer of a detective stories becomes embroiled in a complex and puzzling series of events, beginning with a call from a stranger in the middle of the night asking for the author. Ghosts: Introduces Blue, a private detective hired to watch a man named Black, who, as he becomes intermeshed into a haunting and claustrophobic game of hide-and-seek is lured into the very trap he created. The locked room: The nameless hero journeys into the unknown as he attempts to reconstruct the past which he has experienced almost as a dream.
After having enjoyed some of Auster's later work I was looking forward to this but was sadly disappointed, particularily by the lack of any sort of end to any of the stories and the inward looking nature of the writing was a bit trying.
Ok but not as good as I had hoped (isn't that always the way)
Each of the stories takes place in present day (that is 1980s) New York City, though one of them, Ghosts, is primarily a flashback to the 1940s. Another similarity is that each protagonist is placed in the role of private investigator, either by vocation or by chance, and in so doing comes to the realization that though you may investigate a person’s habits and behavior you can get no closer to understanding who they really are. In the first and probably most famous tale, City of Glass, an author named Quinn is mistaken for a private detective named, interestingly, Paul Auster. Out of a sense of boredom with his current situation he decides to pretend to be this detective and involve himself in a case to prevent a confrontation between his client and the client’s father. Utterly incapable of understanding his mark, Quinn settles for surveillance of his client’s home, a lengthy endeavor that forces him to reevaluate whether he can even know himself, much less another. Despite a lengthy conversation with the real Paul Auster, the author who has written himself into his own work, about the concept of an author writing himself into his own work, this thread which makes for the most interesting part of the story is unfortunately and somewhat frustratingly dropped early on.
Ghosts is probably the strongest piece albeit the shortest as well as the most straightforward piece of detective fiction. Occurring in the 1940s with a cast of characters named after colors, the protagonist, Blue, is hired by a man named White to follow and record the movements of a third man, Black. He is given no details as to why White wishes him to follow Black but does not really care and takes the charge. He watches Black for more than a year, dutifully recording his mundane actions and in the process doing a great deal of self-reflection. Ultimately he grows weary of having a task without meaning and endeavors to find some answers. Blue’s climactic confrontation with Black is a powerful reflection on human psychology and our need for others.
It seems that Auster desired for Fanshawe, the antagonist of The Locked Room, to be remembered as one of the most enigmatic characters in American literature. This tactic feels too contrived, however, and the resulting tale of Fanshawe’s disappearance followed by his childhood friend, our narrator, becoming the executor of his apparently brilliant writings and eventual husband to Fanshawe’s wife fails to keep the reader overly interested in discovering who Fanshawe is. If Auster’s goal throughout the trilogy is to show us how difficult it is to really know anyone, the inadvertent moral he tells here is that sometimes we really just don’t care to know another. While undoubtedly the weakest part of the trilogy, The Locked Room manages to put some closure on the recurring objects and people introduced in the earlier stories. The final two pages are quite fascinating and make the story worth reading of for no other reason than their obvious influence on the ending of House of Leaves.
What The New York Trilogy accomplishes brilliantly is its constant recycling of objects and people (the red notebook, Quinn) that are not directly identical to their counterparts in the other stories but manage to keep the reader aware of significant themes. While the similarities of the stories may feel a bit tedious I would consider The New York Trilogy and all or nothing work that should be read together or not at all, as each story serves to deepen the meaning of the others.
The atmosphere Auster creates is one of perpetual uncertainty, where many of the things we rely upon to make sense of life have eroded without much explanation. Identities are constantly shifting, with people adopting new names and patterns of behavior or else getting those names and actions forced upon them. Disguises are worn, or masks, and characters disappear suddenly or perhaps reappear down the road (or is it just someone with the same name? We’ve no way of knowing). Auster repeatedly explores the idea that names are inadequate means of identification, as names are mutable, and aren’t even unique to begin with. Furthermore identity isn’t something that exists inherently, as again and again characters find their identities subsumed by the identities of others. In addition to the shifting identities the actions of the many characters are also divorced from reality. Again and again we read as a character lets himself fall deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole, restraining himself from doing something he wants or forcing himself to do something he hates or doesn’t understand for no discernable reason. Men of means degenerate into crazy homeless people, throw away relationships, put their lives and livelihoods on the line because of forces or motivations they don’t discuss, or perhaps they themselves are ignorant of what’s pushing them. Men hire private detectives for reasons that make a kind of sense, but which nevertheless feels like it’s logic from another world. Finally each of the three stories ends, but doesn’t resolve. The characters fade away, or go on the run, or some threshold is crossed, but almost no answers or explanation is given, either to the reader or to the characters.
This lack of solution is sure to frustrate some readers, as these stories are couched in the world of dime-store mysteries, with private eyes tracking down suspects and investigating leads. Such stories typically end with some answer being reached, but such is not the case here. In a way, however, this has to be the way in which the stories end. You can’t explore the lack of identity if you let a character reaffirm their identity by solving a problem, you can’t discuss the meaninglessness and irrationality of life by revealing a logical reason for the events of the story occurring, you can’t present the idea that characters are creations subsumed and consumed by their stories if you give those characters a happily-ever-after ending, or even any type of ending. The final story explicitly references the other two stories, and it makes a claim that the stories are all the same story told in different ways, for the purpose of illustrating how characters can’t let go of the story they’re assigned to tell, but this eleventh-hour explanation doesn’t ring true. There is no resolution or message here, except for perhaps an extratextual one that you invent for yourself, and the ideas of identity and the nature of fiction presented aren’t likely things you’ve never thought of before, but that wasn’t enough to sink the book for me.
Does the above description sound appealing to you? If so then definitely pick this book up, as the other aspects of the book won’t give you reason to regret your decision. The stories are well written, and the feeling of New York City pseudo-noir is pulled off impressively well. Characters often feel very similar, but that’s part of the theme of the book after all. Overall because I was in the mood for something like this I enjoyed Auster’s New York Trilogy, despite the lack of resolution or fresh ideas, because the atmosphere was so masterfully done. If you’re on the fence give it a try, and if you’re not feeling it by the end of sixty or seventy pages (or certainly by the end of the first story) don’t feel bad about dropping it, since if you stuck with it you’d be exploring the same labyrinth passages for the rest of the book- although you might be walking on the maze’s ceiling the next time around instead of the floor.
All three of these novellas are detective novels concerned with books, writing, and writers: writers mistaken for detectives, detectives staking out writers, writers of detective novels impersonating detectives, writers who disappear under mysterious circumstances that lead other writers into investigating their disappearances. Auster reminds me irresistibly of Roberto Bolaño in the way that discussions of literature, and of the acts of reading and writing, are seamlessly incorporated into his text in ways that are delicious fun to read. In most cases, too, literary conversations between characters come to be mirrored in the structure of the book itself: never does Auster forget that what his reader is holding in her hands is an artifact, an object capable of explaining and referring to its own existence. The first novella, City of Glass, for example, begins with a triple-screen: the novelist Daniel Quinn, writing detective fiction under the nom de plume William Wilson. Wilson's private-eye investigator is named Max Work, and Quinn is starting to feel that the detective Work is taking up more and more of his consciousness. Then Quinn starts getting mysterious calls in the middle of the night, and the caller is looking for a private detective named...Paul Auster. I think, at this point, you are either tickled by the novelty or disgusted by the cleverness.
It's always a daring move for an author to insert himself into his own fiction. Sometimes it's a total turnoff for me, but I thought Auster handled it well: he had already built up such a self-reflexive series of identities for Quinn/Wilson/Work that doubling all the way back around and having Quinn be mistaken for his own author is, I think, delightful. He's constructed a situation where we have an author writing a detective novel about an author of detective novels, who is mistaken for a detective who is, in actuality, not a detective but an author. For Quinn later tracks Auster down, and he's not a private eye; he can't explain why he should have been taken for one. He does sit Quinn down, though, offer him an omelette, and regale him with a complex, circular theory about the novel Don Quixote. The book we take for a novel by Cervantes is, argues Auster-the-character, a legitimate artifact: Cervantes really was approached (as the text claims) by someone in a bazaar, ostensibly an Arab who was the real author of the work. In reality, Auster-the-character goes on, this person was Don Quixote himself in disguise: he had feigned madness and concocted an elaborate con on Sancho, the barber, and Samson Carrasco, basically orchestrating the events in the novel and manipulating his three friends into creating the manuscript in order to ensure his reputation would live on in perpetuity. Quinn and Auster-the-character begin this conversation by narrowing in on Cervantes's preoccupation with verifiability:
"It's quite simple. Cervantes, if you remember, goes to great lengths to convince the reader that he is not the author. The book, he says, was written in Arabic by Cid Hamete Benengeli. Cervantes describes how he discovered the manuscript by chance one day in the market at Toledo. He hires someone to translate it for him into Spanish, and thereafter he presents himself as no more than the editor of the translation. In fact, he cannot even vouch for the accuracy of the translation itself."
"And yet he goes on to say," Quinn added, "that Cid Hamete Benengeli's is the only true version of Don Quixote's story. All the other versions are frauds, written by imposters. He makes a great point of insisting that everything in the book really happened in the world."
"Exactly. Because the book after all is an attack on the dangers of the make-believe. He couldn't very well offer a work of the imagination to do that, could he? He had to claim that it was real."
"Still, I've always suspected that Cervantes devoured those old romances. You can't hate something so violently unless a part of you also loves it. In some sense, Don Quixote was just a stand-in for himself."
"I agree with you. What better portrait of a writer than to show a man who has been bewitched by books?"
By the end of the conversation, then, Auster-the-character is arguing that Cervantes is offered a faked manuscript by a person who is, in some way, a stand-in for himself, and going on to insist on this story in order to prove that the faked manuscript is, in fact, real. Which turns out to be unnecessary, since the events in the book actually did take place, just not for the reasons that the writers (and Cervantes) believed. Which in turn means nothing, because even though the events took place, they were intentionally manipulated, so that Cervantes inherits a faked manuscript (faked by Sancho et al) which is a genuine chronicle of faked events (faked by Don Quixote), from a man who may or may not be just another version of himself. Not only that, but by the end of City of Glass we find out that the text we have been reading is similarly an artifact, similarly at many removes, and similarly preoccupied with obsessive adherence to "verifiable" facts that, nevertheless, were sketchy to begin with.
This kind of game delights me, although I can understand if it doesn't delight you.
I found Ghosts to be the weakest of the three novellas (although still quite enjoyable), with The Locked Room reminding me, unexpectedly, less of Bolaño and more of Kazuo Ishiguro's typical detail-obsessed narrator, haunted by demons from his past. All three books really should be read together in one unit, as The Locked Room ends up shedding new light on the events of the first two books, twisting their context and making the reader double back on herself to figure out what exactly happened. True to postmodern form, it all almost makes sense in the end...but not quite. For someone like me, who dislikes any mystery whose ends are tied up any tighter than those in, say, Chinatown, this was just right.
I have to say, though, that as much as Auster's sparkling literary cleverness and smoky retro atmosphere reminded me of Bolaño and Ishiguro, I didn't find in this trilogy the same greatness of soul possessed by the other two writers. Despite the darkness in both their works, Bolaño and Ishiguro both address the human capacity to continue on and create meaning for themselves in the face of horror. Auster's only comment on the human experience seems to be that we're all a hair's breadth from descending into madness and non-meaning - true as far as it goes, which is not that far. This didn't bother me - I think a certain amount of nihilism is to be expected even from mainstream noir, and that much more from a postmodern deconstruction of the genre - but it means I didn't think Auster's style quite lived up to his content in this particular instance. That's okay, though - not every book needs to present an entire philosophy of being. As I said, the nihilism fits the genre, and there were more than enough compensations to make this a highly enjoyable read.
I was new to Auster's work (apart from his film scripts for Smoke and Blue in the Face - both of which I loved) so was blissfully unaware of what to expect before I dove in to The New York Trilogy.
The book contains three novellas initially published separately: City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1986).
And in them Auster takes a familiar genre - the gumshoe detective novel - and completely subverts it into something so surreal that you can never be sure of the ground beneath your feet. Each story is a variation on the same theme and contains a character who is given the task of spying on or tracking down another, and in the process having his own identity slip away from him. Oh ... and characters called Paul Auster appear now and again, fountain-pen in hand, who may or may not be the same Paul Aster who is the author. It's clever and tricksy and disturbing and 'postmodern' (a term I know by feel but couldn't start to explain to save my life). A meditation on the layers and levels of reality created by an author.
I suspect the stories may appeal more to the blokes ... simply because male readers seem to prefer novels of ideas and don't bother as much about emotional connection. (Sweeping statement - tell me I'm wrong someone!) Sometimes I was reminded of Murakami, at other times Poe (especially in The Locked Room).
And strangely enough ... it struck me while reading City of Glass that this would make a great graphic novel. I was quite gobsmacked when I discovered that it was already published in graphic form!
Having said all this ... I admired the book a lot more than I enjoyed it ... it's that damn need to care about the people I'm reading about!
This is a series of subtle interlocking novellas set in New York published over 85 and 86: City of Glass, "Ghosts" and "Locked Room with the first set in the period, the 2nd in the 40’s and the last one in the 70’s. They use mystery conventions of the gumshoe detective (think Humphrey Bogart) but in a subversive way as an existentialist reflection on writing, and story creation and communication but at the pace of a thriller; it more Kafka then Chandler with haunting imagery and surreal coincidences. But it also has deep emotional and psychological depths.
To give you a flavour of the book, in the City of Glass the main Character is Daniel Quinn a writer who has abandoned writing except for mystery writing owing to the death of his wife and child. He is successful enough to only need to write one novel a year which he has just done and then he drifts. He is clearly depressed and only feels alive when he is the private eye of his novels. One night he receives a midnight phone call asking for a detective called Paul Auster( yes the real author is also a later character in the story) and after several rejections he decides to act as if were his private eye character. His clients are a child-man who is a survivor of a dreadful abuse by his father (he was deprived of language as part of an experiment in discovering the natural language of man before the fall of the Tower of Babel) and his wife a nurse who had married him so that he could leave the hospital. The father now elderly is being released from Mental hospital and they fear that the son will be killed and want protection.
The story then takes many twists and turns and ends with the author as character being criticised by a final narrator who may be one of the characters from the other stories for what happens to Daniel Quinn during the course of the story.
In the Locked Room all the characters are named after colours and it’s a classical stake-out story but is it? Or is it a reflection on the lives of characters once that have been created and written about?
The final story is of two friends who have drifted apart, one wanted to be a writer and is now a critic unable to create works of his own imagination. He discovers that his friend has disappeared leaving a wife and baby and a locked room of manuscripts. These turn out to be masterpieces of novels, plays, and poems far beyond his capability of writing. In preparing those for publishing he re-enters and re-evaluates his life long friendship and what it meant but at a cost as he faces a secret that tests him and his relationships to destruction.
Paul Auster’s draws on his own colourful work life in his struggle to become a writer so the stories have a grain of gritty realism. But they are interlinked by an interest in the impact of coincidences and lives lived in minimalist even ascetic ways against a background of a loss, failure and absent fathers and reflections on writing and storytelling. If you want a painless way into postmodernist metafiction then this is the book for you. Highly recommended.
Manhattan. Good choice. These three somewhat related non-traditional detective
stories are very thought provoking and have strong themes of obsession,
identity, & anonymity. There are many literary references which I enjoyed and
it was fun to read in NYC (my first visit there).
a trio of rather strange but persistently uninteresting reflections on the process of writing and detective work. more than one person impersonates a hobo.
did not love this one. can't endorse it.
Part III is by far the most interesting in the book and is also what ties all three novels together, giving coherence to the series' themes about identity, the power and limits of language and the nature of story-telling itself. Although all three stories are independent and can be read on their own, the New York Trilogy must be read together as a whole in order to fully appreciate the work.
Another interlocking theme is identity and how it is easily changed and confused by us all. For example, in City of Glass, Paul Auster is a detective (yes, the author uses his own name which is another play on identity) but a writer Quinn assumes Paul's identity and becomes the detective. Everyone is convinced that Quinn is a detective and he convinces himself as well.
I've come to conclusion that these 3 stories are standalone with only some overlap. They've been put into one collection due to some reoccurring themes and overlaps. After the first read-through, I went back and skimmed a few sections trying to look for some concrete clues to link them all but I don't think that they do really connect. Auster has left a lot of mystery surrounding the stories which is a reflection of his view on life and not to expect all mysteries to have satisfying endings.
A definite thought provoking read and I'm going to check out some of his other works next.
The first story, City of Glass, covers a subject which has always fascinated me, that of the 'Forbidden Experiment', the idea that if children are isolated from human language and communication they will spontaneously begin to speak a "true" or primal language. Peter Stillman the junior who is the unfortunate victim of this doomed experiment is a strange, dislocated character who resembles a human automaton. The story plays with the notion of names and ideas in a way that permeates fiction and reality, referencing the author, real characters from history and those of Auster's imagination as interchangeable.
Ghost, with its almost allegorical characters based on colours is reminiscent of a noir B-movie with a plot that we believe to be by turns hackneyed and stereotypical or mind-twistingly original, without ever really getting the answer to what it is.
The City of Glass comes back to the motif of the writer as detective, and the introduction of elements from the other two stories leave the reader's mind spinning with contradictions, references and double identities that are akin to trying to follow a literary 'impossible shape'.
A really enjoyable read.