Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Questions of Identity

The New York Trilogy
The New York Trilogy 

“We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another – for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.” ― Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy

This is certainly a mysterious book. Ostensibly presented as detective fiction, the stories of The New York Trilogy have been described as "meta-detective-fiction", "anti-detective fiction", "mysteries about mysteries", a "strangely humorous working of the detective novel", "very soft-boiled", a "metamystery" and a "mixture between the detective story and the nouveau roman". Auster appears to be a postmodern writer whose works are influenced by the American postmodernism movement. He has his own unique vision that is evidenced by a certain coherence in the narrative discourse that goes beyond metafictional and subversive elements. This distinguishes him from other postmodern writers. The New York Trilogy is a particular form of postmodern detective fiction which uses well-known elements of the detective novel (the classical and hardboiled varieties, for example) but also creates a new form.  His prose is enticing and intelligent:
“Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books or this battle or that bridge – none of that tells us very much.” 
The trilogy includes the novels City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. The first story, City of Glass, features a detective-fiction writer become private investigator who descends into madness as he becomes embroiled in a case. It explores layers of identity and reality, from Paul Auster the writer of the novel to the unnamed "author" who reports the events as reality to "Paul Auster the writer", a character in the story, to "Paul Auster the detective", who may or may not exist in the novel, to Peter Stillman the younger to Peter Stillman the elder and, finally, to Daniel Quinn, protagonist. I enjoyed the connections with Don Quixote evident in the text.
The second story, Ghosts, is about a private eye called Blue, trained by Brown, who is investigating a man named Black on Orange Street for a client named White. Blue writes written reports to White who in turn pays him for his work. Blue becomes frustrated and loses himself as he becomes immersed in the life of Black. The Locked Room is the story of a writer who lacks the creativity to produce fiction. The stories share the confusion of identities that makes them both provocative and frustrating.
Some might call the trilogy simply confusing, I know I felt that way at times. But it is also a wonderful book with fantastic themes that challenge the reader.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. Penguin Books, 1990 (1987)

No comments: