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Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy

Shortly after the economic Golden Age had drawn to a close in the mid ’70s and modernity started to take on what Zygmunt Bauman described as its unstable, liquid form, Paul Auster wrote New York Trilogy — a collection of stories that reflected this changed world, and transformed expectations of what high-concept literature and detective fiction might deliver. Rather than writing about hard-boiled pros investigating some external menace, Auster’s amateur detectives are introspective narrators: the cases under investigation are not crimes but our certitude about life and what we think we know.

Originally released as three separate books in 1985 and 1986, the stories — City of GlassGhosts and The Locked Room — were well received critically, but Auster himself was not so sure about their literary value, likening their popularity to Lou Reed’s hackneyed “Walk on the Wild Side” or Godard’s Breathless, sacred cows not particularly loved by their creators. But despite Auster’s disparagement of his own work, there’s no do doubt it signalled an interesting direction in the evolution of literature

However, there are two things Auster vehemently denies about New York Trilogy. The first is that these are detective stories; in spite of the fact that two of the stories’ protagonists are engaged in paid detective work, and the third is involved in an investigation. The second is that this is postmodern literature. And looking at the form a bit closer, I might be inclined to believe him.

The detective novel is a genre type not typically associated with philosophical and psycho-social investigations. A Victorian-era or mid-century pulp fiction novel tends to operate like a pencil sharpener; the detective shaving away the superfluous elements of the story until the sharp nub of facts are revealed.

By way of contrast, Auster’s amateur detectives telescope out. The closer they try to get to their object of contemplation the more it recedes into the distance or becomes a meaningless blur.

The facts of the matter remain elusive; to a large degree because the protagonist is clouded in mystery, to themselves and the reader; until their motives and sense of self are obliterated. The subject of investigation disappears and suddenly they become the object. The world understood as a log of facts or meaningful patterns fails; language is ambiguous; the “I” is subverted.

For this reason many people consider New York Trilogy to be a piece of postmodern fiction. Yes, theorists like Kuhn, Derrida and Foucault can spring to mind when reading, but it’s better understood as a piece of literary modernism. Gogol, Dostoevsky, Beckett, Breton are maybe better guides for what’s going on here.

It might almost be described as nihilistic if it weren’t so funny. The way Auster’s purposefully earnest and faux naïve writing style interacts with the genre had me in silent convulsions a few times on the train. The fulsome exposition of genre conventions is often hilarious, for example when the protagonist of the second story, Blue (an incognito detective), waxes boyish when speaking to a detective, Black, in a bar:

Cracking cases, living by your wits, seducing women, pumping guys full of lead — God, there’s a lot to be said for it.

Blue is being paid to watch Black, who in turn is watching someone else to no purpose, like an Escher drawing — or images reflected forever and leading to nowhere.

This disorientation continues in the other stories. In City of Glass, author Dan Quinn is drawn into a detective case before mentally unravelling as Auster investigates religio-philosophical concerns (man and the fall) and literary interests (Don QuixoteParadise Lost). The Locked Room, written in first person, follows an unknown narrator as he inhabits the life of a former high-school friend and literary talent who everyone else thinks is dead.

The stories are self-reflexive, but not in an unbearable, Gravity’s Rainbow sort of way — a book whose architecture is designed to irritate. These stories fulfill an admirable and sometimes scarce literary function: the entertainment of the reader.

* originally published in Crikey 3 Aug, 2018