The New York Trilogy

by Joshua Potter

Often billed as the intellectual’s detective novel, The New York Trilogy manages to pack in a bewildering number of highbrow references and sophisticated narrative tactics in the course of its scant (for a trilogy, that is) 300-page run. It’s also one hell of a page turner.

Paul Auster / American / 1985-1986 / 308 pages

I am not so terribly familiar with the detective novel. Of course, I’ve read many books where the protagonist is on a quest with an unknown destination; novels like The Magus or The Savage Detectives, for instance, pit the main character against a substantial puzzle that simultaneously unfolds both for him and for the reader. I’ve also read books that center around a larger-than-life figure who rarely appears in the text, but somehow manages to be the obsessive focus of the other characters in the novel. In this vein, correctly locating or identifying the enigmatic figure is central to the narrative. Consider the many incarnations of the female “V.” in Pynchon’s V. or the (anti)climactic encounter with Bokonon at the top of a hill in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Certainly Ayn Rand took this idea to new heights in Atlas Shrugged when she all but created a cultural institution by asking: “Who is John Galt?”

Like any good novelist working in the detective genre (or so I can gather), Paul Auster infuses his New York Trilogy with substantial doses of both these dynamics: his protagonists are constantly searching and scrutinizing their surroundings in an effort to locate or keep track of an enemy, competitor, or estranged friend. But Auster famously tweaked the formula in several important ways. Virtually all of his characters are writers and, perhaps unbelievably, they all appear to be in the top percentile of well-read individuals. They have conversations with one another about Whitman, Thoreau, and Hawthorne; they are familiar with biblical texts and academic theological scholarship; they read histories of ancient cultures, foreign lands, and famous figures; they mull over the writings of philosophers and the verses of poets as they amble aimlessly around the streets of Manhattan. With their heads collectively thrust so far into the clouds, very few of them possess sufficient practical knowhow to convincingly pass as detectives and, indeed, this is a title that is thrust upon most of them accidentally.

The trilogy opens with City of Glass in which a writer of detective novels, Quinn, is mysteriously asked to tail a recently-paroled child abuser named Stillman. Possessing no sleuthing skills beyond the fictions he creates for paperback bestsellers, Quinn quickly finds himself in over his head and much of this first volume charts Quinn’s rapid descent into hysterical paranoia. In a somewhat odd turn of events, a character by the name of Paul Auster appears (who is also a writer), though he does not seem to be a stand-in for the actual Paul Auster (i.e. the author of the book I’m reviewing). The second volume, Ghosts, is a much shorter and highly abstract story of a detective named Blue who has been hired by White to keep watch of Black. There are many parallels to the previous volume, but no direct connections; in fact, aside from being set in New York city during the same time period, the second volume appears to function as a non sequitur. The third volume, Locked Room, tells the story of an unnamed first-person narrator whose best-but-long-estranged friend, Fanshawe, has supposedly passed away, leaving the narrator as the executor of his literary estate. The narrator oversees the publication of Fanshawe’s extensive set of novels, ends up marrying Fanshawe’s widow, and comes rather close to losing his mind. Quinn happens to be referenced in this volume and a character by the name of Stillman also pops up in a seedy bar, though it is not the case that he is the same Stillman as he who appeared in the first volume.

So, this is the sort of book I enjoy.

I enjoy the reliance on geographic setting in the novel: the claustrophobia of the busy streets, the dankness of the second- and third-story apartments, the spatial descriptions of landmarks relative to one another, and the extensive use of specific street names, subdivisions, and train stops. Auster has set a convincing stage with his descriptive passages and his characters move across this stage in deliberate capacities. I enjoy the disconnectedness of the narrative, the distinct disjunctures with indirect parallels and hints. I am reminded, in particular, of the structure of Bolaño’s 2666 in that both books rely on stand-alone sections that make only passing reference to one another. I enjoy, as well, the rather high level of erudition on display in the work. Auster was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters a few years back and I find this an appropriate commendation given the overt intellectualism that permeates most lines in The New York Trilogy. Finally, I also enjoy reading a book populated by writers, by fellow appreciators of the written word; Auster explicitly calls our attention to the process of writing, to the dependability of narrative, and to the blurriness of the line between fact and fiction. It’s a similar tactic to those employed in a wide range of other metafictive novels: from If on a winter’s night a traveler by Calvino to Omensetter’s Luck by Gass.

And although the plot drags a bit in places (especially during the highly impressionistic second volume), it has a number of interesting things to say about detective work. As readers, we have to remember that the protagonists are almost always unwitting, accidental detectives. The procedures and tools of the trade are unfamiliar to them and the process of trailing suspects, disguising themselves, and endlessly recording observations into their notebooks uniformly drives them nearly insane. If the currency of private investigation is the answer (the key! the discovery!), then Auster’s detectives literally fall apart in their search for wealth. I read this as a damning, but subtle line of criticism: the relentless, exhaustive search for truth and meaning in a world that is demonstrably chaotic and random is a task that is beyond human. It is a theme that smacks of two excellent writers already mentioned in this review: Vonnegut and Pynchon. So many people behave so strangely in the novel that the question Why did you do X? could be (and is) repeated over and over again. I cannot recall a single satisfactory answer to this inquiry.

My major shortcoming as a reviewer of this novel, of course, comes by way of my total lack of experience reading detective genre novels. To that end, I’m not sure that readers with a steady diet of such work would embrace The New York Trilogy. For those of you looking for a witty, generally well-written, and erudite postmodern riff on the search for objectivity, however, this is it.

Rating: 7 / 10

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