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The New Canon: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

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The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster.

When the web site Canon Fodder conducted an informal poll of 79 bloggers to select the best work of American fiction during the last 25 years, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy received the most votes. (However, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which we will discuss in a few weeks, received more points based on the scoring system used in tabulating results.) Auster’s book has also developed an enthusiastic following overseas, especially in France, where it won the Prix France Culture de Littérature Étrangère.

The appeal of this work to critics and writers is understandable. To some extent, critics and writers are the heroes of the inter-locking short novels that comprise Auster’s trilogy. And the issues Auster’s characters deal with are the classic problems of post-modernist criticism. What is the relationship of a text to reality? Can an author impart meaning to the world through writing about it? Is writing a sacred responsibility or just a whimsical game? Do we write to engage with the world or to escape from it?

If these comments give you a Derrida fever and the Lacanian blues, let me assure you that Auster’s book is no dry academic affair. In fact, The New York Trilogy follows, to some degree, the formulas of detective fiction. This incorporation of genre devices adds to the post-modern flavor of the work, and also imparts an evocative flim noir quality to Auster’s tales. Imagine how Raymond Chandler might have told stories if he had spent too much time reading contemporary literary criticism. That will give you some idea of the peculiar tone of Auster’s work.

You don’t meet many real detectives in this book. Instead you find writers who get caught up in strange mysteries. In City of Glass, the first novel in the trilogy, the protagonist is a writer of detective fiction who finds himself involved in an adventure after being mistaken for a real private investigator. In the concluding story, The Locked Room, a failed author becomes obsessed with a successful novelist who has disappeared, and devotes his life to tracking him down.

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. In the world of The New York Trilogy, where coincidence and chance constantly drive the action, almost anything is possible.

The futility of words is an odd theme for a writer to embrace. Yet Auster does it with a vengeance. In City of Glass, the pseudo-detective is called in to to help a man named Peter Stillman. When he meets Stillman and asks for a description of the case (a classic moment in all detective fiction), this is his client’s reply: “If I can give you the words you need to have, it will be a great victory. … Long ago there was mother and father. I remember none of that. They say: mother died. Who they are I cannot say. … No mother, then. Ha ha. Such is my laughter now, my belly burst of mumbo jumbo. Ha ha ha.” And so on, with greater and greater incoherence, for several more pages.

No, this is not some experiment in literary style. Stillman was victimized as a child, kept in isolation by a crazy father for nine years. He never learned to speak normally, and now is fearful that the parent who did this to him, about to be released from incarceration, will come back to exact revenge. Yet the way that Auster turns issues of textual interpretation into a pulp detective tale is highly characteristic of this writer’s peculiar perspective on matters.

The New York Trilogy is very much the quintessential post-modern work of fiction. It is ambiguous and open-ended. Yet the stories also seem closed and almost claustrophobic, with the plots of the three novels turning in on themselves. The book is multi-layered and invites the reader to approach it from many different angles, but also works as straightforward story-telling. Yet Auster’s greatest achievement may be his ability to achieve all this, while staying true to the pacing and narrative build of a detective tale. After all, there are plenty of deep post-modern books, but here is one that is a real page-turner.

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