Thursday, 25 January 2018

The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster

A proper head scratcher.

The New York Trilogy comprises three apparently separate stories about people going missing, being searched for or possibly not actually existing in New York City. Apparently separate but also possibly connected. I'm not sure I got it TBH.

The first, City of Glass, is narrated by an isolated writer called Daniel Quinn who adopts the identity of Detective Paul Auster in order to take on a case. He writes under a separate pen-name, just for added layers). The case involves tracking a recently released abusive father and ensuring that he stays away from his psychologically damaged adult son. It sounds quite normal when you say it like that. But the narrative becomes a murky, confusing sequence of events that ends with Quinn's descent into a type of madness. An invisibility. The segment ruminates on themes of identity, authorship and the ease with which a person can remove themselves from the world (in a non-death sense). Quinn becomes obsessed with the released father, mapping his movements through New York, divining messages in his routes, basing his theories on obscure readings of Classic Literature and scripture. The name Henry Dark, who may or may not be fictional, is floated for the first time. Paul Auster shows up in his own novel with his real life (then) wife and actual kids. As you do.

The middle section, Ghosts, is about a private eye called "Blue", former protégée of "Brown", who is tailing a man named "Black" on Orange Street for a client named "White". Orange Street doesn't get air quotes because that seems to be a real actual street in Brooklyn. Blue, who starts the story as a regular detective, stakes out Black's apartment, composing written reports to the unknown and unseen White. White pays with regularity and keeps Blue installed in an apartment on the other side of the street to his target. Black seems to mostly read books and write at his little desk. After weeks and months staring at the ordinary, secluded Black, Blue begins to lose his grip on his identity, spiralling into madness and falling out of his old life, becoming obsessive about the increasingly mysterious Black.

The last story, Locked Room, features an unnamed narrator, a critic, who is unexpectedly contacted by the wife of an estranged childhood friend. Her husband, Fanshawe, has disappeared and left instructions to contact the narrator. After a certain amount of time has elapsed, he has instructed them to publish his life’s works- poems, plays, three novels. As the narrator smoothly installs himself into the home, marriage and family of the missing writer, tracing the lost years of his former friend becomes an obsession.

I can't work out if Auster (the author, not the fake detective OR the on the page Auster from the first book) is reusing names, or if there really is some connection between Henry Dark, a name two characters adopt and a third claims to have invented, if the Paul Stillman in Paris is either of the Paul Stillman (Stillmen?) from the first story...or if they're all the same person? I fell like I don't have the mental stamina to connect all the dots. If there are dots. It's possible he's just messing with us. It's possible it's vastly important. The paranoia!

The books are excellent at making the reader question everything they've read. The narrators are unreliable to the EXTREME, so you develop a constant cagey-ness to everything. They make for incredibly unsettling reading, but so atmospheric. I loved the recurring themes of authorship, of the act of writing and recording daily lives and how this meshes or clashes with our notion of identity and self. Such themes feature heavily in all three segments, as does the central idea that it is in fact incredibly easy to just remove yourself, or simply fall out of your own life. To ghost your own existence. In the latter third, how easy it is to just insert yourself into the life of another, to take up their still-warm space when they unexpectedly desert it. Perhaps this ghosting is especially easy in a city as enormous and as impersonal as New York.

Though I’m pretty sure there was much more going on in the book than I was able to grasp, I massively enjoyed this unique take on the PI genre. As a reader, I rarely read crime thrillers, but these slow burn, research and investigation heavy old school Maltese Falcon style detectives doing loads of legwork stories I am here for. It kept me guessing. It kept me wondering. It exposes something about people and the inexplicable, contrary, self-destructive little creatures that we are.

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