The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster

 Here is a book review in the style of a Socratic dialogue.  This is actually my third attempt at writing this review; a fact that probably exposes my inadequacy as a writer rather than The New York Trilogy‘s complexity as a novel.

My first two attempts to review this book contained more questions than observations.  So, as dialogue often yields more answers than introspection does, I thought I’d try something different with this third attempt by analysing the novel through a discourse.

Also, this is my response to the baffling array of odd and confusing reviews of this book which I’ve found  across the internet.  Reviews which draw no conclusions, offer no opinions and are afraid to commit themselves to saying anything whatsoever.  To the writers of such reviews, my Socrates is dedicated…


 Tomcat: Hello Socrates.

Socrates: Ahh, my child…

Tomcat: Umm, okay. I’ve just finished reading The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. I have some questions.

Socrates: Of course you do.

Tomcat: As I was reading it, I felt as though some wild animal was attacking me; I wanted to grab it and wrestle it into submission, but I was too weak: the best I could do was shoo it away and hope it would leave me alone.  It left me confused and irritated, but, if I’m honest, slightly impressed. 

Firstly, what is it?  I understand that The New York Trilogy is ostensibly three detective novels in which writers are cast in the role of private investigators. I know that, superficially, these are three books about three writers who each become obsessed with another person, so much so that they can no longer tell where they end and the other person begins.

But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there?  Is the book some sort of post-modern noir that examines narratology and the ambiguity of language and such stuff, or is it just a book about madness and self-destruction? Is it trying to be Derrida in fiction? I’m an amateur really, when it comes to understanding these things; a keen but unaccomplished autodidact.

Socrates: Do you find genre labels helpful?

Tomcat: Broadly speaking, yes. I know that anything too restrictive or prescriptive is dangerous and limiting but, in my capacity as a review writer, I do find it helpful to posit whatever book I’m writing about within a  tradition of similar narratives.

Socrates: *sighs* Very well then, you may try to tar books with the wishy-washy brushes of genre identity, but, with The New York Trilogy, I think you’ll find that nothing really sticks.

Tomcat: I was afraid of that.

Socrates: Indeed.  I’m somewhat of a post-modernist, and as such I’d like to give you a warning:  Don’t be fooled by these books’ self-description as ‘detective novels’; the detective framework is merely a façade, a narrative conduit through which Paul Auster can transmit his ideas about writing. 

Tomcat: err… a ‘narrative conduit’?

Socrates: Yes – The New York Trilogy could have been epic fantasy, or historical romance, or political satire; it doesn’t matter – the detective story is just a chosen narrative staple used by Auster to explore his thoughts about language.  The only significant ‘detective’ element to these books is that they all investigate language.

Tomcat: That’s a bit twee. I like to think of these books as parodies of classic detective novels subverted by Auster’s unusual prose and conflicted characters.  I thought the detective genre was the heart of The New York Trilogy.

Socrates: To think of these books in this way is to miss the point.  By reading first few pages it should be strikingly obvious that  this book is fixated with language and the perfomative act of speaking.  For example, when we meet the character Peter Stillman at the beginning of City of Glass, we find that his speech is highly stylised; it’s even reminiscent of Samuel Becket characters:

No Mother hen, haha, such is my laughter now, my belly burst of mumbo jumbo hahaha big father said no difference to me, that is to say, to him.

Yet we soon learn that he speaks in such an unusual manner because he is a victim of the Forbidden Experiment; he lived without exposure to language until his ninth birthday.  This opening revelation sets the tone for the entire trilogy: these are books about how language forms meaning differently for different people.

Tomcat: All of the main characters are writers.

Socrates: Correct: they are all writers who start  private investigations into the lives of other people – yet the more they investigate their targets, the more they discover about themselves.  They all try to write their thoughts down, but they become confused – are they writing about themselves or their targets? 

Over the course of their respective novels, each writer begins to lose his grip on their own identity; even their own names become confused – narrators change and we begin to question what we are being told.  If the narrator doesn’t know who he is, how can he tell his own story?

Tomcat: That’s all a little pompous. Are these novels really that ambiguous?  If the narrator knows nothing, how can the reader know anything?

Socrates: Exactly. These three novels not only question what it means to write, but what it means to read.  Can characters be trusted? Can narrators be believed? or, for that matter, can writers themselves be relied upon to tell us… anything at all?  There’s a moral imperative at work which examines the veracity of language and character.          

Tomcat:  You can’t trust what the narrator is telling you?

Socrates: Well…for example: in the first novel of the trilogy (City of Glass), a man is looking for a detective named Paul Auster. Another man pretends to be this Paul Auster and there is a writer also called Paul Auster.  Three Paul Austers.  Four, if you include the actual novelist himself.  But are they all just the same person?  The New York Trilogy is constantly confusing the reader by changing the names and identities of its characters.  In a way, of course, they all have to be the same person – they all come from the mind of the “real” writer Paul Auster, as he demonstrates by giving them all the same name; his own.

Tomcat: So any book only contains one character – that of the writer?

Socrates: That is one of the many questions which this book addresses.  The trilogy is telling us that signification is entirely arbitrary.  If every ‘Paul Auster’ that appears in The New York Trilogy had a different name, would it make any difference?  Would it make the characters any more unique? It doesn’t matter what the characters’ names are; they’re all constructs from the same individual psychology: the writer’s.

Tomcat: I got that; part of this book did feel as if it were holding a mirror up to the writer and asking ‘who are you?’

Socrates: If that is what the book is doing, then Paul Auster is holding up his own mirror in return, turning the mirror on itself – and creating an infinity of reflections.  Only then he is asking the reader to decide what is real and what is not.  We can’t tell where one character ends and another begins, or where one story finishes and another starts.  There are so many narrators, so many characters, so many layers…

Tomcat: So, to put it in a less pretentious way; The New York Trilogy is a narratologist’s wet dream.  You make it sound as if Paul Auster isn’t communicating with a reader, but having a discussion with himself – isn’t that pointless?

Socrates: Don’t mock! This is serious.  The narrators become more and more unreliable as the novels progress. 

Take the second novel Ghosts, for example.  All of the characters are named after colours: Black, Blue, White, Brown – another arbitrary use of names.  Blue is sent by White to spy on Black.  All well and good.  But as Blue investigates deeper and deeper, he begins to suspect that Black and White are the same.  Paul Auster is telling us: if we can’t discern between White and Black, then how can we trust any words to deliver a true meaning?  Black is White! The ultimate linguistic ambiguity!

Tomcat: Or the ultimate miss-conception.  Couldn’t Blue just be mad – losing his marbles?  He’s spent so long investigating Black that he’s become obsessed with him? The same goes for Quinn and Stillman in the first novel: City of Glass.  Couldn’t The New York Trilogy be a human tale of obsession, narrow-mindedness and self-destruction, rather than a study of ambiguity, confusion and language?

You say that the novels become confusing and the events become ambiguous; some characters tell us that they are lost, that they don’t know who they are – is this necessarily a reflection on the nature of all language? Couldn’t it just be a Lacanian character study? Couldn’t The New York Trilogy be trying to say: ‘this is what happens to your experience of language and identity when you isolate yourself, when you start to live so internally that the outside world becomes confusing and unreliable?’  To me the book is making a statement: ‘This is how a true recluse sees the world’.  It’s about losing one’s identity. 

Socrates: You don’t understand.

Tomcat: Why don’t you take my copy of the book and stamp ‘you don’t understand’ in red ink at the top of every page?  Maybe that’s something Paul Auster should have done…

Socrates: This book offers no explanations, only possibilities.  I’m trying to say that this book has infinite meanings – by the end of each novel the language the narrator uses is so contradictory, so ambiguous, so confusing, that it can be read in a myriad of different ways; all of them equally valid.  You should be open to the possibilities of interpretation.  Auster is clearly telling us that language can’t be trusted and your interpretation of the book, that The New York Trilogy is merely a psycho-linguistic study of obsession and introspection, cannot be objectively valid.

Tomcat: So you intend to ignore every possible interpretation of this novel? Dismissing it as a mere ‘possibility’? because the language is so ‘ambiguous’?  So far, Socrates, you’ve not actually said anything about the novel – you just claim it can’t be pinned-down to anything at all.  You think that The New York Trilogy attempts to defy meaning, to wash over us in a haze of linguist ambiguity?  I think you’re wrong – I think that, in every sentence, Auster is daring the reader to apply meaning.  The problem with your reading, and with post-modernism in general, is that you happily put the reader in the centre of the universe, but then alleviate him of all responsibility by saying that there can be no truth in anything he says.  A kind of absolute relativism.

Socrates: But there are so many ways to read the book…

Tomcat: I accept that, but saying that every interpretation is equally valid is a coward’s way of reading. 

Socrates: How can you be so sure of your own reading?  What gives your understanding of language authority?

Tomcat: Language isn’t individual and personal and relative; it’s social and communal – if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to understand each other.  I agree that words can be slippery, sometimes confusing; that’s part of their beauty; but just because they can be ambiguous doesn’t mean that anything goes.  I refuse to believe that Paul Auster’s goal is to convince me that black is white.  It’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s wry. 

Socrates: But you might have to believe that black is white… in order to fully grasp the novel…

Tomcat: That’s facile.  You insist that all understanding is down to personal interpretation, but now you persist in telling me how I should read the book.  In a way, you do want everybody to agree upon a single interpretation – that your reading of infinite ambiguity is the best.  Telling people how to read in this way is still limiting their freedom as readers.  I, for one, don’t want to lose myself in your post-modern reading, in which language can mean everything and nothing at the same time.  It’s cowardly – I know what this book means to me, I know what it’s about, and I’m going to stick to my guns.  The confusion of language in The New York Trilogy happens when individuals shut-themselves away from society, become so selfish and introverted that they lose this social understanding of language and, as a result, are unable to tell one word from another, black from white.

Socrates: But…

Tomcat: Your so-called ‘reading’ isn’t a ‘reading’ at all, you just won’t commit to an opinion. I’m not talking to you anymore.

Socrates: But isn’t this post-modern stance compelling?

Tomcat: SHUT UP Socrates.

5 responses to “The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster

    • Hahaha, many thanks. I was determined not to go to bed until I finished this!

      It’s just an experiment really – and a failed one at best. I still think it’s a bit thick in the middle and needs to be cut-down a little to make it more cohesive. I may have another crack at it in the future. But many thanks for your kind words .
      And my God, this book is difficult to write about! :S

  1. Oh my goodness! When I read the book I must admit I didn’t feel like I understood many things – and I couldn’t tell whether it was because English isn’t my first language and I was missing a lot of subtlety and sub-text, or whether the story was just meant to meander and screw with your mind 🙂
    Either way, I couldn’t stop reading and I developed a bit of an obsession with Paul Auster. Your review makes me want to drop everything and read it all over again.
    Thank you!

  2. Tomcat…
    Thanks for this review; it helped.

    I agree with you. And yet your Socrates scratched some of my post-modern itches.

    Still, where would have been the harm if the Parisian Peter Stillman was the NY Peter Stillman Quinn didn’t follow? Or if that was one time Quinn ran into Fanshawe? That’s all I wanted, a little linkage…

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