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In Those Complicated Shadows: The New York Trilogy

Book #5 for 2011: City of Glass by Paul Auster
Book #6 for 2011: Ghosts by Paul Auster

I was inspired to read these, the first two books of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, when I heard Auster interviewed briefly on the WNYC Radiolab podcast (which I wholeheartedly recommend, by the way). Auster described the premise of his novel City of Glass and all I could think when I heard it was, “God, I wish I’d thought of that!”

According to Auster, he was inspired to write City of Glass when he received a wrong number phone call circa 1980 asking for someone named Quinn. Auster told the caller that there was no such person at that number, but the next night the same person called and asked again for Quinn. Again Auster told him that there was no Quinn there, but the moment he hung up he thought: “I should have lied and told him that I was Quinn!”

In a clever bit of meta self-referentiality, City of Glass opens with a man named Quinn receiving a call asking for a man — a private detective, actually — named (yes) Paul Auster. Quinn tells the caller that no Auster exists at that number, but when the caller asks for Auster again the next night Quinn does what the real Auster had only dreamed of doing: He pretends to be Auster and agrees to take on a case as this apparently fictitious private detective.

All of this is quite clever and becomes even more interesting when it turns out that “Auster” is being hired by a young man who had been locked away in a dark room by an abusive father throughout his childhood in such total isolation that he barely knows what it is to be a human being. The abusive father is being released from prison and the young man, who acts human in much the same way that a crude piece of computer AI acts human, is afraid that the older man means him harm. He hires the fauxAuster to follow the father, paying him a retainer and sending him on his way.

So far so good, but at this point the cleverness palls a bit as it becomes apparent that Auster the author (as opposed to Auster the possibly non-existent character) is more interested in symbolic metafiction than in telling an actual story. Quinn becomes so obsessed with the case and with trailing the father that his own life fades into the background and he gradually ceases to exist except as a kind of disembodied observer of the abusive father’s erratic (but oddly harmless) behavior. Auster the author raises the meta-stakes a bit by bringing himself in as a character, meeting with Quinn and telling him about an essay that he’s writing on the subject of Don Quixote as metafiction, a notion he obviously means to apply to the story he’s writing about Quinn. The novel isn’t so much resolved in the end as it’s tied off in a kind of mobius strip, with Auster tracking Quinn tracking the father. And Quinn…well, I won’t tell you what happens to Quinn, but I frankly didn’t find it all that interesting. Auster clearly has weighty absurdist notions on his mind here, but I didn’t find that the absurdism could bear all the weight.

The second novel, Ghosts, is marginally better, if quite similar. It also concerns a private detective (all of the stories in the trilogy are detective fictions), this one a man named Blue hired by a man named White to shadow a man named Black. (Yes, all the fictional characters and some of the locations are named after colors. Make of that what you will.) It becomes clear fairly quickly that Blue and Black live such similar lives that Blue is effectively watching himself and eventually we learn that Black is watching him back. I assumed initially that this was some sort of metaphor for the act of self-contemplation and I’m not sure I was wrong, but things become increasingly complex as the story goes on. Blue and Black begin to interact and Black turns out to be…well, it wouldn’t be fair to say. But there were times when I began to suspect that every major character in the story was simply another aspect of a single meta-character, perhaps Auster, perhaps an everyman representing the human condition itself.

Auster goes off into a digression about halfway through the novel about how Blue tries to read Thoreau’sWalden and doesn’t really appreciate it because he doesn’t give it the deep, contemplative reading it deserves. Clearly this is Auster’s way of saying that his own novel deserves a deep reading (though I hope he isn’t trying to compare his work to Thoreau’s). I should probably have given Auster’s novel a deeper reading than I did, but by this time I just wanted to finish it. I had originally planned to read the third novel in the trilogy, The Locked Room (all three novels are currently available in a nifty omnibus edition with a pulp magazine style cover by the great comic artist Art Spiegelman), but I just couldn’t work up the mental energy to do so any more than poor Blue could work up the energy to give a proper reading to Thoreau.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

2 responses »

  1. Me too. Look, I’m happy to put forward the effort with Borges. Maybe that’s because he writes short fiction and it doesn’t feel like such a huge investment. However, I also have been deeply rewarded by those efforts, but that is not so much the case with my forays into Auster’s work. I believe it’s more a matter of taste than anything else. Auster is a unique and gifted writer, but he just doesn’t quite “do it for me”.

  2. Christopher Lampton

    The Borges analogy is a good one. Borges would come up with small but stunningly original conceits and give them exactly the space that they deserved, which was rarely more than a short story. Somewhere out there Auster must have a short story collection and I really should look it up, because you’re right — that’s the length these stories would have worked at.


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