Thursday, December 15, 2011

459. The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster

History: Originally published sequentially as City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1986), since been collected into a single volume. 
 City of Glass was adapted in 1994 into a critically acclaimed experimental graphic novel.
Plot: The first story, City of Glass, features a detective-fiction writer become private investigator who descends into madness as he becomes embroiled in a case. It explores layers of identity and reality, from Paul Auster the writer of the novel to the unnamed "author" who reports the events as reality to "Paul Auster the writer", a character in the story, to "Paul Auster the detective", who may or may not exist in the novel, to Peter Stillman the younger to Peter Stillman the elder and, finally, to Daniel Quinn, protagonist.
Quinn, a lonely writer who writes detective stories under the pseudonym of William Wilson, and whose life is turned around after he is mistaken for a detective named Paul Auster. Quinn, out of curiosity and boredom, decides to pass himself for Auster, and accepts to help his client, a man named Peter Stillman. Stillman was locked in a room for years as a child, and now, an adult with many behavioral and linguistic problems, fears that his father (who locked him because he believed that in isolation, his son would forget English and remember the prelapsarian language of God) will come back to kill him. Quinn follows Stillman Sr., and in the process progressively loses everything: his apartment, his sanity, and of course, his sense of identity, which was not very strong to begin with…
The second story, Ghosts, is about a private eye called Blue, trained by Brown, who is investigating a man named Black on Orange Street for a client named White. Blue writes written reports to White who in turn pays him for his work. Blue becomes frustrated and loses himself as he becomes immersed in the life of Black.
He works from an apartment facing Black’s, and spends his time spying on him. Unfortunately, Black does nothing except write, eat, sleep and take the occasional stroll. Blue becomes bored and starts to ask himself many disquieting questions: What if Black is spying on somebody else? What if he is spying on him? Who is really White and is he Black’s accomplice? Blue progressively becomes paranoid until the ultimate plunge into madness, and his watch of Black also becomes a look into his own self: "For in spying out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself."
The Locked Room is the story of a writer who lacks the creativity to produce fiction. Fanshawe, his childhood friend, has produced creative work, and when he disappears the writer publishes his work and replaces him in his family. The title is a reference to a "locked room mystery", a popular form of early detective fiction.
The narrator talks about Fanshawe, a man who used to be his best friend, and who one day disappeared, leaving Sophie, his pregnant wife, behind. Fanshawe, who was a writer, is presumed dead, and had previously instructed his wife to trust all his writings (which he had chosen not to publish before) to the narrator, who will make the final decision about their fate. The narrator has Fanshawe’s works published, falls in love with Sophie, and after some weeks, receives a letter from Fanshawe, who is not dead after all. He wants his friend to consider him dead and marry Sophie, and forbids him to try to find him. The narrator quickly complies and adopts Ben, Sophie’s son, in the process, not mentioning Fanshawe’s letter to her. But he is unable to put him out of his mind, and becomes haunted by him. Once he accepts to write his biography, his obsession with Fanshawe turns to hatred, threatening his family, his sanity, and even his life. The Locked Room ties the three stories together, not surprisingly raising more questions than it provides definite answers. As the narrator says when he reads Fanshawe’s red notebook: "He had answered the question by asking another question, and therefore everything remained open, unfinished, to be started again."
Review: The New York Trilogy presents a triptych: three stories which can be read independently but are connected to each other in several ways, such as recurring characters (or at least recurring characters’ names), the claim of authorship for all three by the narrator of the last story, or again the fact that they imitate and then depart from the structure of the detective novel.
Ostensibly presented as detective fiction, the stories of The New York Trilogy have been described as "meta-detective-fiction", "anti-detective fiction", "mysteries about mysteries", a "strangely humorous working of the detective novel", "very soft-boiled", a "metamystery" and a "mixture between the detective story and the nouveau roman".
The characters in The New York Trilogy always seem to be writing. They are writing stories or letters or poems or reports of their investigations. But despite their best attempts to circumscribe and explain the world with these texts, they only seem to cut themselves off more and more from life by devoting themselves to the written word. To add to the complexity, another writer -- Paul Auster himself -- plays a bit part from time to time in these stories. Or perhaps this is another Paul Auster, unrelated to the author of the book.
Opening Line: “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.”
Closing Line: “I came to the last page just as the train was pulling out.”
Quotes: “Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within...By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere.”
Rating: Very Good.

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