The New York Trilogy
12.17.2002 by , every Tuesday.
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.”
So begins “City of Glass,” the first story of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. The caller is looking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency, but when Daniel Quinn answers instead, he decides to play along and pretend to be Paul Auster.
Yes, Paul Auster is the name of the author and the name of a character in the book. The real Paul Auster writes detective fiction. The Paul Auster that the caller wishes to speak to is a detective. Daniel Quinn also writes detective fiction, and he spends the book pretending to be a detective. Along the way he meets the real fictional Paul Auster, who turns out not to be a detective at all, but another writer. It’s all very confusing and post-modern.
The caller, one Virginia Stillman, hires Daniel Quinn to protect her husband, Peter. As a child, Peter’s father locked him in a tiny, dark room with no human-contact, in the hopes that he would learn to speak an original, pre-Tower-of-Babel language. The father (also called Peter Stillman) was sent to a mental institution, but has now been released. Peter and Virginia are worried that the father will try to harm Peter again, and that’s why they hired Quinn.
The plot gradually becomes more and more convoluted. There are lots of interesting discussions about the nature of language, religion, narrative, and Don Quixote. At the end of the story Quinn vanishes, implying that characters in fiction are dependent on the story for their very existence, and when the story comes to an end, they die.
In “Ghosts,” a lot less happens. A man called White hires a detective called Blue to spy on a man named Black. But all Black does is sit at his desk and write. Eventually Black reveals that he is also a detective, and has been hired to spy on Blue.
My theory about the “meaning” of this situation is that Auster’s characters are attempting to avoid the fate that Daniel Quinn suffered in the previous story. They want to escape the slow death of being fictional characters, so they set up a situation wherein all of one character’s actions are reactions to the actions of the other character, and vice-versa. That way they aren’t being controlled by the story, but by each other. It’s a kind of self-perpetuating feedback loop. Because it’s a loop, it is infinite, and will therefore outlive the narrative. As Black says: “[Blue] needs me to prove he’s alive.”
But their plan doesn’t work. As Blue puts it, after realizing what’s going on: “you can’t really call this a life…You can’t really call it anything. It’s a no man’s land, the place you come to at the end of the world.” With no narrative to feed into the loop, whatever life the participants have is quickly exhausted. “It’s used me up,” says Black, “and now there’s nothing left. You were the whole world to me, Blue, and I turned you into my death.”
“The Locked Room,” is the last story of the trilogy, and the most traditional. One day our hero, another writer, gets a call from a woman named Sophie Fanshawe. Her husband, just called ‘Fanshawe’, vanished 6 months previously, and Sophie presumes him dead. Fanshawe was a prolific writer, but never submitted any of his work, and now Sophie wants our hero’s help publishing it.
Fanshawe’s work is received to great acclaim; our hero and Sophie fall in love, get married, and live off the proceeds. But then one day our hero discovers that Fanshawe is still alive. It turns out he disappeared specifically so that our hero and Sophie would come together, but he warns our hero never to tell Sophie or to try to find him. But our hero becomes obsessed with tracking Fanshawe down and confronting him.
Again, the story deals with being trapped in a narrative. Our hero is perfectly content to live with Sophie until he realizes that Fanshawe planned everything out, that he is living out Fanshawe’s narrative, in other words.
Auster is interested in narrative and what it means to be a fictional character. He realizes that by writing, he is gradually killing the characters he creates, because the story must inevitably end, and the characters with it. He explores many different variations on this idea in The New York Trilogy. His characters struggle with it, try to escape the narrative, and finally, at the end of “The Locked Room,” learn to live with it and ignore it.
If you’re interested in philosophizing about fiction The New York Trilogy is well worth reading. There are moments of genius sprinkled throughout and Auster is a master of fascinating detail and semi-fantastical ideas, at times reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges. It is definitely post-modern, however, and the moments of brilliance don’t add up to a coherent story in the traditional sense of the word.