The New York Trilogy is perhaps the most astonishing work by one of America's most consistently astonishing writers. The Trilogy is three cleverly interconnected novels that exploit the elements of standard detective fiction and achieve a new genre that is all the more gripping for its starkness. It is a riveting work of detective fiction worthy of Raymond Chandler, and at the same time a profound and unsettling existentialist enquiry in the tradition of Kafka or Borges. In each story the search for clues leads to remarkable coincidences in the universe as the simple act of trailing a man ultimately becomes a startling investigation of what it means to be human. The New York Trilogy is the modern novel at its finest: a truly bold and arresting work of fiction with something to transfix and astound every reader. 'Marks a new departure for the American novel.' Observer 'A shatteringly clever piece of work . . . Utterly gripping, written with an acid sharpness that leaves an indelible dent in the back of the mind.' Sunday Telegraph 'The New York Trilogy established him as the only author one could compare to Samuel Beckett.' Guardian
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.
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)
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.
As the title suggests this book is a collection of three novellas that initially appear to be classic detective stories where identities merge and asks the reader to read between the lines. However, the book is more complicated than that. Each novella deals with a person's identity or more accurately lack of it and loneliness. Each novella deals with a protagonist searching for a closure but often only at the cost of their sanity.
In the first City of Glass, a lonely author of detective novels decides to masquerade as a private eye for a strange couple which results in him tailing a crazy man, obsessed with naming things.
In the second Ghosts, the shortest, the plot involves a private eye tailing a recluse living in an apartment across the road from his own for a shady client over a long period of time. Unlike the other two novellas this one offers some sort of a closure at the end however, I struggled to see how this see tied in with other two. Equally I found it hard to imagine that any detective would stay on the tail of a recluse for years, forsaking the woman he intended to marry and making his own life miserable in process, no matter how much he was being paid.
The final novella The Locked room, takes over from where City of Glass left off and like the former deals with a writer whose goal is to hide his own identity behind someone else, on this occasion another writer, even going as far as marrying the other's wife and adopting his child. Whilst the meeting of the two writers at the end gives the tale a certain amount of sense to what has gone before it certainly doesn't answer all the questions that the reader might have. Or at least it didn't for me.
No doubt each reader will see something different in this book but as I said at the beginning of this review for me these novellas are about identity or at least one's own sense of it but as each feature writers they also look at the art of writing itself, in particular how a writer must look inward at themselves for inspiration and ideas, similarly how many use a pseudonym to hide own identities behind that of their creations' identity as the quote right at the top suggests.
In summary, whilst I appreciate that this is an experimental piece of writing I cannot help but think that Auster wrote this more for his own benefit rather than the reader's. Personally I found this just too hard going and a little weird to really enjoy, I just had to concentrate too hard throughout. I can see why this is on the 1001 list and I can imagine that it will be a Marmite novel but personally it is not one that I am likely to revisit or recommend.
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.
Describing the plots does no justice to the novels (they are, after all, practically plotless), but I will endeavor to summarize. CITY OF GLASS tracks Quinn, a frustrated novelist who agrees to accept a detective case, after being mistaken for the detective Paul Auster. GHOSTS follows the exploits of Blue, a detective hired by White to spy on Black, for reasons which remain obscure. THE LOCKED ROOM is centered on an author who has been charged with the task of tending to an old friend's vast literary output, after the friend has mysteriously vanished from civilization.
As mentioned previously, these novels ARE mysteries, on their surfaces. (That's initially what drew me to their pages.) But Auster isn't concerned with the intricacies of the detective genre. He is far more fascinated with the image of the author, that person who creates people out of thin air and smoke. Auster delves into what the make-up of such a person may be, a person who's public character is defined by the artistic output, not by whom the author actually is. Who the author actually may be, or what the author's opinion is as to his or her own writings, is not important. It is a schizophrenic life, to be sure, and Auster knows it. Are we defined by our inner monologue, or do our actions govern our identities? Is who we purport to be as important as how we appear to be?
CITY OF GLASS is an excellent example of Auster's musings on this theme. As Quinn slowly begins to develop his detective persona, he can feel his previous author persona begin to slip away. By his inadvertent creation of a new persona, he erases his past; but as he was only really defined by his novels, it is a far easier task than it first appeared. This culminates in an exploration of the inner workings of personal discovery that reminds me of nothing so much than Arthur C. Clarke's elliptical finale to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
Is it environment, or public perception, or biology that determines what we turn out to be? Auster interweaves this theme into all three of his novels. The character of Stillman, in CITY OF GLASS, is so obsessed with this idea that he deprived his son of any form of contact, trying to discover the hidden, secret language of God. Fanshawe, in THE LOCKED ROOM, is determined that he distance himself from what he was perceived to be, unwilling to accept anyone's characterization of his psyche. Blue, in GHOSTS, discovers that what he fears the most is true, that his existence is his job; outside of that, nothing he thinks or feels has any effect.
Mind you, none of this would raise the themes above the quality of a academic treatise without Auster's remarkable writing ability. While he may be loathe to be judged by his output, the fact remains that Auster can relate a story with the best of them. His characters, while purposefully vague, still manage to create an empathy with the reader. The quest for identity, that search for the ego, is a universally understandable topic. Auster achieves the feat of simultaneously having the characters understand themselves at the same time that the reader does. Any discussion of the past is irrelevant, it's the NOW that matters. The author in THE LOCKED ROOM gradually understands this in his quest for the missing friend Fanshawe. What he discovers about Fanshawe only serves to confuse. Perhaps he was better off with his own personal memories, rather than try to incorporate the recollections of others.
Auster also realizes that one's opinions about a novel can differ from another's; it makes no difference. What is important is what YOU thought, not what others may tell you to think. The NEW YORK TRILOGY seems designed to provoke different responses, alternate beliefs as to what it all means. I personally haven't been privy to such a possibility as to the ultimate meaning of a thing since witnessing Peter Greenaway's remarkable film THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER. What does it all ultimately mean? Who knows? What's important is that it affected me, on a level I wasn't expecting. It is a pleasant surprise.