Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Auster’s The New York Trilogy

I’d always had this idea that Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy was a staid trio of novels about the lives of upper-class New Yorkers. I now realize that I was confusing him with Louis Auchincloss.

The New York Trilogy is, rather, a group of, I don’t know, detective novels about detectives, or novels about our failure to find the words to describe the world as it really is, or our efforts to find the language that won’t fail to capture the world, or detective novels about language. Although characters are occasionally cross-referenced, the novels are independent, though the themes on language and what an excessive concern in the life of another can do to a detective grow and color throughout the trilogy.

In the first novel in this collection, City of Glass, Peter Stillman (the elder) has spent a lifetime seeking our “original language,” what we spoke before words got in the way; and, his son claims, attempted to find this language by keeping him – the son – in a locked room, away from human contact and voice. One of the things I liked most about Auster’s novels was that it is not possible to draw a line between “reality” and “fiction” in these works. Much of what happens seems to lie somewhere between the two, so that even what’s “real” may be real only as it is described by one character. The younger Stillman’s story seems plausible and believable, but it’s never clear whether he is in fact telling the true story of his childhood.

The main character of City of Glass, named Quinn but pretending to be the detective Paul Auster, follows Peter Stillman around New York. By carrying a notebook and recording the streets they walk along, Quinn/Auster realizes that each day Stillman is spelling out a letter; and that he is doing this with a purpose, to spell words. This image is by its nature unquotable (what I really want is for you to just read it), this idea of letters growing out of the city streets, or rather being placed there by people, informs the questions about language that arise in the next two novels, Ghosts and The Locked Room.

Quinn/Paul Auster, who is tailing Peter Stillman the elder to gauge his intentions towards his son, Peter Stillman the younger (the elder just having been released from prison for his crimes against his son), becomes consumed by the fiction of Peter Stillman, so that by novel’s end his own life has been consumed by Stillman’s, or by what he imagines Stillman’s life to be. And, too, his thoughts begin to take the train that Stillman the elder’s had:

He wondered if the case was really over or if he was not somehow still working on it. He wondered what the map would look like of all the steps he had taken in his life and what word it would spell. (127)

Auster’s characters here think, over and over, of language as something that can be discovered, or that can be more than it is. But the frustration is that it can’t be more than it is; Quinn/Auster tries desperately to record and understand Stillman, but while doing so the case, and his connection to his own life, slips away. In the second novel, Ghosts, in which a private detective, Blue, has been hired to spy on Black, Blue considers words to be “transparent”:

His method is to stick to outward facts, describing events as though each word tallied exactly with the thing described, and to question the matter no further. Words are transparent for him, great windows that stand between him and the world, and until now they have never impeded his view, have never even seemed to be there. (144)

But Blue is spending his days staring out a window across the street at Black, who sits at his window writing all day. Blue gives in to his imagination and creates stories about Black, and when he debates including these fictions in his report (or even the fact that he has imagined such fictions) words become less clear:

As he reads over the results, he is forced to admit that everything seems accurate. But then why does he feel so dissatisfied, so troubled by what he has written? He says to himself: what happened is not really what happened. For the first time in his experience of writing reports, he discovers that words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say. (145)

Like Quinn/Auster, Blue is consumed by Black’s life; the future Mrs. Blue becomes the ex-future Mrs. Blue, and what he is consumed by is his job, by the need to sit at his window all day and write weekly reports about Black.

This absorption of one life into another is explored most fully in the final novel, The Locked Room. A writer, Fanshawe, has disappeared, and his wife, Sophie, contacts his childhood friend (the novel’s narrator and a writer of essays). Fanshawe did not seek publication before his disappearance (and assumed death), but instructed Sophie that should anything happen to him, his work should go to his friend and then either be destroyed or shopped to publishers, depending on his friend’s opinion of it.

Fanshawe’s wife, Sophie, wants little to do with any of this. As the narrator notes,

Fanshawe had disappeared from her life, and I saw that she might have good reason to resent the burden that had been imposed on her. By publishing Fanshawe’s work, by devoting herself to a man who was no longer there, she would be forced to live in the past, and whatever future she might want to build for herself would be tainted by the role she had to play: the official widow, the dead writer’s muse, the beautiful heroine in a tragic story. No one wants to be part of a fiction, and even less so if that fiction is real. Sophie was just twenty-six years old. She was too young to live through someone else, too intelligent not to want a life that was completely her own. (220 – 221)

But the narrator, through his involvement with the publication of Fanshawe’s work, and his marriage to Sophie a year after they meet, becomes drawn into Fanshawe’s life, begins to live a life that is not completely his own. It is a situation that only worsens when he decides to write a biography of Fanshawe, with the aim of finding Fanshawe – for he has good reason to believe that Fanshawe is not dead. In this way the narrator becomes, much like the narrators of the previous two novels, a detective, consumed by the life of his subject. After seeking as much information as he can in the States, he travels to Paris in search of Fanshawe, abandoning any pretense that he is working on a biography. With the abandonment of this tale,

I became inert, a thing that could not move, and little by little I lost track of myself. … I see things that happened, I encounter images of myself in various places, but only at a distance, as though I were watching someone else. None of it feels like memory, which is always anchored within; it’s out there beyond what I can feel or touch, beyond anything that has to do with me. I have lost a month from my life, and even now it is a difficult thing for me to confess, a thing that fills me with shame. (287)

In The Locked Room there is this one phrase, “how lives burst apart,” and that seems to capture what happens to the narrators of these three novels: their lives burst, albeit in slow and painful motion, as they lose themselves to another person or to a place, or maybe to language itself and their efforts to make their world fit the words they can craft to describe it.

The only way I can think of ending this “review” is by saying that I am really happy I finally learned The New York Trilogy is a kind of super detective fiction rather than a novel by Louis Auchincloss.



[…] Nabokov that it’s the style that makes a novel not just a novel but a work of literature. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which I just finished, plays with the structure and tradition of detective novels, and from the […]

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[…] Paul Auster – The New York Trilogy: This trilogy did not make me cry (making it a standout of sorts on this list), but was kind of crazy and thought-provoking, in the realm of detectives doing detective work on other detectives, and a lot of fun to read. Review here. […]

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