This is a review of The New York Trilogy written by Paul Auster in 1987.
As the title says, this book is actually a trilogy of three shorter novels: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room.
Without spoiling the novel, I will say that it should really be taken as a whole, instead of as three separate books that happen to share themes. At the start of the book it may not be obvious why I think this way, but by the end I think you'll come to see what I'm getting at.
Each novel is structured a bit like a detective novel, with the protagonists tasked with trailing or discovering some person each time. I'll get to the contents of each novel later though.
Paul Auster's writing is very fluid, and he does an excellent job of describing how the story feels to each protagonist. When describing a scene, Auster focuses mainly on the protagonists perception of it, rather than feeding us the details straight. The focus of the book is inherently central to each protagonist, each story definitely skewed to their "version" of events. Even though the book is mainly description, it does a good job of keeping you interesting, never overstaying a particular scene. Each novel flows nicely between the events keeping you on your toes with new developments and interesting premises.
That being said, the book does feel like it repeats itself a bit, but that also seems to be the point of the book, in some sense. I think Auster sought to write three novels about the same things, and that's the appeal of the trilogy as a whole.
The recurring themes throughout the book / novels include paranoia, impersonation, and self-referentiality.
Throughout the book, the protagonists experience progressively mounting paranoia, as they get more and more obsessed with their task, and wary of their surroundings. This is a common theme for detective novels, but the degree to which the protagonists fall into this trap is elevated.
Another persistent theme in all 3 novels is how each protagonist has to play the role of another person. This happens because one of the protagonists is a writer, so he impersonates and takes on the mannerisms of his main character, but also because the protagonists act as detectives, and so have to conceal their own identity.
The book also references itself and its author. In the first novel, the main character impersonates a detectived named "Paul Auster", after the author himself. The book also references its own novels directly and indirectly.
Synopsis: City of Glass
City of Glass starts with our protagonist, Quinn. Quinn is a writer in New York City, who has gone from being an accomplished writer to churning out pulp detective novels under a fake name. The main character in his detective novels goes by "Max Work", and Quinn's work as a writer involves imagining himself as Work.
One day, he starts getting distressed phone calls from a woman asking for a detective "Paul Auster". At first he ignores the calls, as he is not Paul Auster, but eventually he pretends to be that detective and goes to visit the woman.
The woman explains to him that her husband's father is getting out of prison soon, and that she'd like Paul (as she knows him) to keep an eye on the man to make sure no harm comes to her husband. Her husband, Peter Stillman, was locked in a room as a child by his father. His father was trying to discover the language men spoke in the garden of eden, a language in which everything you say perfectly describes what you're thinking of. The father thought that by keeping his son locked in his room, he would eventually digress down to speaking that original language, untainted by the influence of modern language.
At some point, their house had a fire, and Peter Stillman Jr., the son, was discovered, and Peter Stillman Sr., the father was emprisoned for what he had put his son through.
Quinn, taking upon the alias of Paul Auster, starts trailing the father, and doesn't end up discovering much. In order to interact with the father without blowing his cover, he takes on various disguises. He pretends to be a homeless begger, asking for change. Then he pretends to be himself, and goes up to the father directly. Of course, since he's supposed to be Paul Auster, the detective, going up as Quinn, the writer, is not actually revealing his identity. He takes on a third monicker, "Henry Dark", to which the father responds by telling him that it's not "his true name". As if he can tell what someone's true name is or isn't.
At some point, he ends up visiting the real Paul Auster, who he thinks is actually a detective, whose number somehow got mixed up with his at the beginning of the affair. It turns out that Paul Auster is actually just a writer. In fact, the Paul Auster depicted in this novel is essentially the same Paul Auster that wrote this book.
Eventually Quinn loses contact with his client, who has holed herself up, along with her husband, inside of their appartment. He decides to keep watch on the building 24/7, barely going out to eat, and trying to sleep in minute long naps to not lose sight of the appartment. He becomes more and more paranoid, and more and more roughed up from living on the street. Eventually, he decides to break into the appartment, which he finds empty.
Inside the appartment, he confines himself to a dark room, with nothing but his red notebook, which he used to keep track of the case previously. This is the same room where Peter Stillman Jr. had previously taken the habit of isolating himself from his wife and other people. Someone brings him food every day, and eventually he runs out of pages to write in. We don't know who was bringing him food, or why. We also don't know where he went at the end of the book.
The book ends with the narrator telling us of his discovery of the empty appartment, and the notebook. It's implied that the contents of the notebook were used to write the novel itself. In some sense, the novel was written by its own protagonist.
In this novel, the protagonist, Blue, is tasked with following a man named Black, by his client, White.
He follows Black around everyday, writing down everything he sees. He notices that Black spends most of the day writing in his study. His contact with his client is minimal, but when he tries to catch his client putting his monthly cheque in his mailbox, he sees a masked man doing the same. He then gets a mysterious message from his client telling him that he does not like being watched.
Eventually, Blue starts to get the suspicion that there's no purpose to his tracking Black, and this is all an elaborate plot to mess with his head. He learns that Black has also been tasked with following him. Black has been writing in his own book everyday about what Blue has been doing.
At the end of the novel comes an almost inevitable confrontation between the two detectives. At this end, Black threatens Blue, and they both realize that they're the same person.
The ending is confusing, but upends the entire novel. We realize that nothing in the novel really happened, that it's all a metaphore for a man grappling with his own identity.
Synopsis: The Locked Room
This novel begins with an introduction to our protagonist, who is very similar to Quinn from the first novel. Our main guy is an unaccomplished writer, who makes a meager living from writing articles in magazines.
One day, the wife of his childhood friend, Fanshawe, calls him, because her husband has gone missing, living her and their baby son alone. From this point on, he's disappeared long enough to be considered dead, and she just wants someone to make use of all the writings he left behind.
Over the years, Fanshawe managed to accumulate many binders worth of writings, ranging from poems, to plays, to full novels. Our protagonist is now charged with taking these literary pieces and editing them to be fit to publish.
The books are excellent. This turns out to be no surprise, given how Fanshawe was when our main character knew them as a child. In fact, Fanshawe was somewhat of a child prodigy. Fanshawe excelled not only in school, but also in baseball. He was more mature than his peers, and perhaps even his own parents. Throughout their childhood together, the main character knew of Fanshawe's writing, but never got the chance to read it. He always had the hunch that it was amazing, given Fanshawe's excellence in every other domain.
As it turns out, Fanshawe was admired greatly by the protagonist, in almost all ways possible. The protagonist admired him as an author, as a husband, and as a moral person. Fanshawe was always the person they strived to be, but could never live up to.
As Fanshawe's sudden disappearance goes from a great surprise to the status quo, the protagonist ends up marrying his wife, and adopting his son as his own. From then on, the new couple lives as if Fanshawe is dead. At this point, our main character receives a letter from Fanshawe, telling him that he's grateful for the protection of his wife, and caring for his son. But, under no circumstances should the main character look for him. If he manages to find Fanshawe, he won't hesitate to kill him.
From this point on, the main character becomes more and more obsessed with finding Fanshawe, despite this warning. He makes up the excuse of writing a biography about his childhood friend, while secretly trying to figure out his whereabouts. The protagonist himself doesn't even realize this is a front at first, but he slowly gets roped deeper and deeper into this obsession.
At some point, he ends up talking to Fanshawe's mother, once again under the guise of writing a biography. His mother tells him how much pain Fanshawe caused her. It turns out that despite his moral character in other respects, he was always extremely cold with his own mother. As a child, he even refused to let her touch him after a certain age. He refused to send her letters as an adult, instead sending veiled messages in the letters to his sister.
It's at this point that the pair have sex, the main character in a sense, taking joy in surpassing Fanshawe, and knowing that his mother is using him to get back at her own son. It's at this point that he consummates the role of Fanshawe.
He gets more and more obsessed with Fanshawe, to the point of going on a binge drink in Paris, and accusing a certain Peter Stillman of being Fanshawe himself. It's after this episode that he drops all pretenses of writing a biography about the main, and comes to terms with his obsession. He wants to end this whole charade, and start a truly comfortable life with Fanshawe's wife, living as if he was truly dead, and getting rid of the rest of his things.
After a few years, our main character receives a letter from Fanshawe, asking him to talk one more time. He meets Fanshawe on the other side of a locked room, with threats of suicide if he tries to breach the door. Fanshawe tells him that he's been holed up in this dark room, scribbling in his red notebook, with a woman occasionally bringing him food. Today is the day that he's decided to die.
Fanshawe then tells us that he's been fleeing from a man named Quinn, who almost caught him twice in New York. In fact, during one of the episodes, Quinn thought he was following Fanshawe, but Fanshawe, in fact was following him. At some point, he even camped outside of the main character's appartment to observe his wife and their child. He took the name of Henry Dark, which is how he evaded discovery these past few years. He finally gives our protagonist the red notebook which he's been using as a sort of diary.
Inside this book, we find a rough account of the book we've just finished reading.
The climax of the book is the ultimate reveal of how the book references itself. At the beginning you have the small reference to the author, Paul Auster, who appears as a character. This little moment can be scene as just a little wink and nodd, sort of like Stan Lee appearing in a Marvel movie. But the ending of the book seems to reveal that all three novels are in fact the same novel, and are all twisted versions of the same event.
The climax opens up more questions than it answers though. Is the protagonist the same in all three novels? O is Fanshawe the protagonist in the first novel? If Fanshawe is Black, then who is Blue? Who is Peter Stillman?
Some events take on a new meaning when interpreted in the light of this revelation. In City of Glass when the main character sleeps on the street while stalking his client's appartement, this seems to match up with Fanshawe stalking his wife in the The Locked Room. Fanshawe being locked up in a secluded room, and having food delivered to him matches up with the ending of City of Glass. But if Fanshawe is the same Quinn that locked himself up at the end of City of Glass, why does he say that Quinn the detective was trailing him?
The more you try to unravel the tangle presented in front of you, the more you get stuck in the self referentiality of the book. The ending of Ghosts is almost a metaphor for the book as a whole. You're left confused as to what the novel means after Black exposes the whole thing as a charade. You feel as if the book itself is some kind of a charade by the end of it.
Because of its oroboros like structure, the book is almost an impersonation of itself at times. Reading Ghosts straight after City of Glass, it's as if the second novel is pretending to be the first. They both involve detectives getting progressively more paranoid, and progressively more obsessed with their case. The final novel is the most interesting in this respect, since it pretends to be a different novel right up until the end, where it reveals itself to be the same novel we've just read twice.
The characters inside of each novel are never authentic to themselves or other people either. Quinn spends so little time as himself, Quinn the writer, that when he presents his "true self" to Peter Stillman, he does it as just another disguise, the same way he was a homeless beggar the other day. Throughout the novel, Quinn is impersonating Paul Auster, a person who turns out to never even exist. In fact, can we even say that the Paul Auster we do encounter is real? Maybe the author presenting a fake version of himself inside his book, we have no way of knowing whether there is even any link between reality.
Of course, the protagonist in The Locked Room spends the novel becoming Fanshawe himself, taking on his wife and child, and even his literary work. This makes sense, because he has admired Fanshawe all of his life, but he can't even admit it. The irony here is that Fanshawe has abandoned his own name, and taken on many others in its place. Fanshawe even refuses to be called by his own name at the end of the book.
The only link we have between the truth and what we're told is the words that are said. The book reveals itself to be what's left of the fragments of the red notebook referenced a few times. Because of this, we can't even be sure if the book is a "true" retelling of the fictional events. The book is just an impersonation, a fabrication of the fiction its author dreamt up.
We also don't know which novel is actually impersonating the other. Maybe Fanshawe's telling of things is correct, and the first two novels are just his experience as told in his notebook. Perhaps Fanshawe is spinning lies, and the three novels are disconnected after all. This confusion is exactly what the author was looking for.
The limits of language
One aspect of City of Glass that gains in importance when considering the book as a whole is the idea of a "true language" one spoken at the dawn of man, and one in which no lies could be told, in which thoughts could be precisely expressed without any loss of meaning.
In the novel, Peter Stillman was obsessed with finding this language, to the point of imprisoning his own son in a dark room in hopes that he would digress down to speaking it. He also spends a good portion of the novel collecting random objects on the street. We later learn that he collects these objects to give them "true names" in his invented language.
At first, this just seems like a fun bit of interest in City of Glass. The tower of babel, and the true language are motivators for the plot, but don't seem all that important in the end. But all this talk on self referentiality makes you really appreciate these ideas. If the book is, as it claims, taken from the fragments left behind in the red notebook, then how can you be sure that it's a true expression of its events?
Because language cannot truly express ideas, the book can only ever be an impersonation, a presentation of these events. All three novels are fake presentations of what happened, because it isn't even possible to present what happened without distorting the events. Just by putting words onto the page, you change the meaning of what was in your head a few moments ago.
Perhaps that's why Fanshawe was disgusted at reading his own writing. His vision of the world pales in comparison to what his words were able to express. The tragedy is that his vision is stuck inside his head, and he has no one to share his disappointment with. Everyone else knows only the words, and not his own ideas.
Paul Auster's self portrayal is a reminder of this facade, because of course the author himself isn't depicted in the novel with all the nuance he would have in real life. In the novel he's just a caricature of himself, and no matter how much effort the author puts into his own description there's nothing he can do to ever truly describe himself.
Is a person more than perception?
This brings us to the final idea I'd like to touch upon.
We only know these fictional characters through the words describing them. We take it for granted that these characters are fictional, and don't find it odd that they're not real at all. When our protagonist becomes crazier and crazier, we can empathise with them through our own experience, but we understand that we're empathising with the expression of their experience, and not with a real person's experience. We're just feeling what the author attempted to make us feel by putting words to a page.
But in some sense, real interactions aren't fundamentally different. We can only experience other people through our interactions with them. We can never experience another person the way they experience themselves. Because of this, each person is only an impersonation of their true selves. If they could experience themselves the way we do, they would be astonished and perhaps even apalled, at the differences between their own self and our vision of them.
When you get to know a person through how they talk to you, you're getting to know the sum of your interactions with them, regardless of whether or not they're being honest. If someone is dishonest, we realize that how we think of them is false, but we never see the facade even in honesty.
Because, even when a person is being honest, our actions and words can never portray the true complexity of our own character. As much time as you can have spent with a person, you can never truly understand what it is to be them, or even who they truly are.
Even if you had a twin, there'd always be this seed of doubt. Unless you experienced exactly the same things, in the same way, how do you know that your twin doesn't have a different way of thinking than you do. In practice, twins often have different personalities, different mannerisms, that develop as they age. So it becomes immediately obvious that you can't truly know your twin, the way you know yourself.
Perhaps it's this distinction that allows us to define ourselves. We can define ourselves as the only human we can truly experience. Our consciousness is the truest thing we know, truer than any other kind of human interaction. We're the only other humans with which we share a consciousness, as weird as it is to put it that way.
But even then, we can ask ourselves, is my perception of myself just another facade? If I observe myself through language, how can I be sure that my expression of my own consciousness is not a reductive impersonation of my true self. Furthermore, what about the parts of myself I don't understand? If I don't understand some parts of myself, that must mean that my own experience is that of an impersonation of my own person, and not my true self.
If I can only experience myself through my own thoughts and feelings, how do I know I'm not missing fundamental rules to how I tick, or fundamental impulses that guide my actions, impulses of which I'm not even aware?
To understand that there's no solution is to solve the problem.
Should you read it?
Although I did venture a bit into metaphysical territory there at the end, I can assure you that if that's not your thing, there's no need to worry, because the book doesn't actively venture into it either. It's more of an open path to explore, after having read the book.
Reading the book literally provides an enjoyable experience, with tight prose and engaging stories, even at the first degree. But, for me, the greatest value of the book comes from rereading it, and trying to understand how everything knots together. Or rather, how nothing fits, and nothing makes sense. How the author did his best to make things contradict, as is typical of your post-modern fiction.
So I'd recommend this book, for people looking to think, or looking to divert themselves.