Here’s something I love: You have a book that you did not buy. You know nothing about it but its title and the picture on the cover. These lead you to certain expectations, but when you begin to read, you realize your expectations were totally wrong, and the actual book you are reading is way better than you expected. This is what happened when I read The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. The book’s cover led me to believe that I would be reading three noir novellas. In a way, that’s what the book is, but additionally, it’s much, much more.
In the first novella, “City of Glass,” a detective (who is not a detective) is hired to follow a man who may be contemplating his son’s murder. In “Ghosts,” another detective (who is a detective this time) is hired to follow a man who may or may not be aware that he is being followed. In “The Locked Room,” a man is summoned by his friend’s wife to become executor after the friend’s disappearance.
Each of the “books” is related to, and speaks to, the others. Characters from one novella may pop up in another; perhaps the author himself will appear. Exactly who is who can be the most confusing question the reader encounters. Auster deals with questions of representation, of meaning, and of agency. How can we make meaning in a world in which no one notices us? Do we even exist? Does it take language to fully represent another human to us, and if so, what is the role of the language as it interposes itself between the speaker and the audience? Does it focus or distort? In each book, a detective figure searches for information on someone who is at first completely other, but becomes more and more like the detective, until in the end the doppelganger is an unspoken figure in each story, haunting the narrative with his ominous presence.
In the end, the protagonists spend a lot of time, write a lot of words, and perform a lot of actions, only to be left wondering why their lives have turned out as they have. As Fanshawe remarks, “You can’t possibly know what’s true or not true. You’ll never know.” The words on the page are all that remains of the bewildered detectives and their antagonist/doppelgangers; what if they too are destroyed? Auster answers his own question: “He had answered the question by asking another question, and therefore everything remained open, unfinished, to be started again. I lost my way after the first word, and from then on I could only grope ahead, faltering in the darkness, blinded by the book that had been written for me.” This is exactly how I felt after finishing the book.
I loved this book. It was one of those works that you never want to finish, so you put it away for a day or so in order to draw out the reading. Yet it destabilized me just as it destabilized the protagonists who were called out of their small meaningless lives in order to be the heroes of lives that are still perhaps without meaning, but on an even grander scale.