Sunday, November 23, 2008

The New York Trilogy: City of Glass; Ghosts; The Locked Room - Paul Auster

Every time I saw Pedro the Lion play live, David Bazan would always stop the proceedings maybe halfway or 2/3 through the show in order to start a question and answer session. "Are there any questions at this point?" he would say. Audience members would shout out topics on whatever they wanted to hear Bazan discuss. Once someone asked, "What's your favorite novel?" And he answered, "The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster." I had never heard of the book, or Auster before, and I felt that if it was the best book Bazan could recall at the moment, then it must have been worth reading.

That question was probably answered in 2002 and so six years later, I have finally gotten around to reading Auster for myself. I'm sorry I didn't seek him out earlier. In that time, however, I did watch Smoke and Blue in the Face, on recommendation from my brother-in-law, not realizing at all that Auster had written the screenplays for those pleasurable cinematic anomalies. After reading The New York Trilogy I definitely want to go back and revisit those films. I also want to read Hand to Mouth and Leviathan and maybe a couple other books by him, but by this point we all know it is much more easy and efficient to watch a movie than read a book. Needless to say, I now consider myself a fan of Auster.

So what is The New York Trilogy about, finally, after all this meandering? As is probably obvious, it is made up of three volumes, each of which stand on their own, but also inarguably belong together in the same book. Each novella works to varying effect. But for me personally, I enjoyed "City of Glass" and "The Locked Room" significantly more than "Ghosts." It is hard for me to say if I liked "City of Glass" or "The Locked Room" better, but I am leaning towards the latter, as it has the most satisfying "page-turner plot" of the three. For some reason, I couldn't get into "Ghosts" as much, though that is not to say that it is a failure as a piece of writing. Far from it--it just appears to be the most "experimental" and "postmodern" of the three, notably naming all of the major characters after colors. Also, it is not broken up into chapters like the first and last pieces, and I found it a bit more exasperating to finish because of that. The pacing does not complement the story in this case, and though there are definitely stretches of a few pages at a time as strong or stronger than the other two, it is overwhelming in its slowness, and produces the same effect in the reader as it does in the protagonist--impatience, restlessness, and ennui.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. First things first: "City of Glass," which features a protagonist by the name of Daniel Quinn, 35, an author of detective novels under the pen name of William Wilson, who has lost his wife and son and has led a cloistered existence in New York City until he is mysteriously contacted by a person mistaking him for the detective Paul Auster. The person ends up being Peter Stillman, who has been all but disabled by the bizarre parenting by his father, also named Peter Stillman, a retired professor at Columbia who wrote about the Tower of Babel and the coming apocalypse in the New World, to occur 340 years after the landing of the Mayflower--or 1960. Quinn is hired by Stillman and his wife Virginia to follow the elder Stillman, who has recently been let out of jail, is returning to New York, and may be plotting the murder of his son.

The majority of "City of Glass" consists of Quinn following the elder Stillman, as he walks around New York picking up random bits of trash from the sidewalk, examing them and writing about them in a red notebook. This eventually drives Quinn insane, culminating in an incredible passage describing a very long-walk around the island of Manhattan:

"He walked down Broadway to 72nd Street, turned east to Central Park West, and followed it to 59th Street and the statue of Columbus. There he turned east once again, moving along Central Park South until Madison Avenue, and then cut right, walking downtown to Grand Central Station. After circling haphazardly for a few blocks, he continued south for a mile, came to the juncture of Broadway and Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street, paused to look at the Flatiron Building, and then shifted course, taking a westward turn until he reached Seventh Avenue, at which point he veered left and progressed further downtown. At Sheridan Square he turned east again, ambling down Waverly Place, crossing Sixth Avenue, and continuing on to Washington Square. He walked through the arch and made his way south among the crowds, stopping momentarily to watch a juggler perform on a slack rope stretched between a light pole and a tree trunk. Then he left the little park at its downtown east corner, went through the university housing project with its patches of green grass, and turned right at Houston Street. At West Broadway he turned again, this time to the left, and proceeded onward to Canal. Angling slightly to his right, he passed through a vest pocket park and swung around to Varick Street, walked by number 6, where he had once lived, and then regained his southern course, picking up West Broadway again where it merged with Varick. West Broadway took him to the base of the World Trade Center and on into the lobby of one of the towers, where he made his thirteenth call of the day to Virginia Stillman. Quinn decided to eat something, entered one of the fast-food places on the ground floor, and leisurely consumed a sandwich as he did some work in the red notebook. Afterwards, he walked east again, wandering through the narrow streets of the financial district, and then headed further south, towards Bowling Green, where he saw the water and the seagulls above it, careening in the midday light. For a moment he considered taking a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, but then thought better of it and began tracking his way to the north. At Fulton Street he slid to his right and followed the northeastward path of East Broadway, which led through the miasma of the Lower East Side and then up into Chinatown. From there he found the Bowery, which carried him along to Fourteenth Street. He then hooked left, cut through Union Square, and continued uptown along Park Avenue South. At 23rd Street he jockeyed north. A few blocks later he jutted right again, went one block to the east, and then walked up Third Avenue for a while. At 32nd Street he turned right, came upon Second Avenue, turned left, moved uptown another three blocks, and then turned right one last time, whereupon he met up with First Avenue. He then walked the remaining seven blocks to the United Nations and decided to take a short rest. He sat down on a stone bench in the plaza and breathed deeply, idling in the air and the light with closed eyes. Then he opened the red notebook, took the deaf mute's pen from his pocket, and began a new page." (127-128)

From here, Quinn camps out in an alley nearby the elder Stillman's hotel, waiting for his next move, and the novella quickly shifts into something entirely different. What happens is hilarious and absurd and sad and is probably the best possible way to end this story. Though I could see its potential to frustrate some readers, I couldn't think of a better way to conclude everything that comes before it.

"Ghosts" involves a detective named Blue, who is hired by a man named White to rent an apartment across the street from a man named Black and watch his every move through his window. This is a rather difficult story to summarize, but it would be easiest to say that a whole lot of nothing happens, until Blue decides to start taking more drastic measures, finally approaching Black in disguise, which then result in the most entertaining and satisfying scenes in the story. Before the real driving action begins though, Black reads a copy of Walden, and Blue picks up his own copy to see if there are any clues that might give insight into Black's motives:

"Even experienced and sophisticated readers have been known to have trouble with Walden, and no less a figure than Emerson once wrote in his journal that reading Thoreau made him feel nervous and wretched. To Blue's credit, he does not give up. The next day he begins again, and this second go-through is somewhat less rocky than the first. In the third chapter he comes across a sentence that finally says something to him--Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written--and suddenly he understands that the trick is to go slowly, more slowly than he has ever gone with words before. This helps to some extent, and certain passages begin to grow clear: the business about clothes in the beginning, the battle between the red ants and the black ants, the argument against work. But Blue still finds it painful, and though he grudgingly admits that Thoreau is perhaps not as stupid as he thought, he begins to resent Black for putting him through this torture. What he does not know is that were he to find the patience to read the book in the spirit in which it asks to be read, his entire life would begin to change, and little by little he would come to a full understanding of his situation--that is to say, of Black, of White, of the case, of everything that concerns him. But lost chances are as much a part of life as chances taken, and story cannot dwell on what might have been." (194)

The final piece, "The Locked Room" revolves around a character named Fanshawe, the childhood friend of the narrator, who remains nameless but appears to be Auster due to a passage near the end in which he references writing "City of Glass" and "Ghosts." Fanshawe has disappeared, and the narrator is called by his estranged wife Sophie to edit the manuscripts he left behind in order to see if they could be published. A few months later, they are, and Fanshawe becomes known as a genius, and the narrator marries Sophie, and they live a very comfortable lifestyle subsisting on Fanshawe's royalty checks. Eventually the narrator mistakingly suggests the idea of writing a biography of Fanshawe, which sets in motion the majority of the plot of the novella. While the story seems to have been heading towards a happy ending, the narrator interjects his r'aison d'etre, which is informative in relation to the common adage that fiction is about trouble, that fiction is about a problem that demands resolution:

"In some sense, this is where the story should end. The young genius is dead, but his work will live on, his name will be remembered for years to come. His childhood friend has rescued the beautiful young widow, and the two of them will live happily ever after. That would seem to wrap it up, with nothing left but a final curtain call. But it turns out that this is only the beginning. What I have written so far is no more than a prelude, a quick synopsis of everything that comes before the story I have to tell. If there were no more than this, there would be nothing at all--for nothing would have compelled me to begin. Only darkness has the power to make a man open his heart to the world, and darkness is what surrounds me whenever I think of what happened." (278)

There is a satisfying final encounter to "The Locked Room" and a satisfying closure to The New York Trilogy on the whole. While I would not go so far as to call it my favorite novel, it is a very excellent one, and served me well as an introduction to Auster, and I would recommend it as such. If you are in search of a new author, for new eyes through which to see the world, you could do far worse than Auster. The New York Trilogy cements his status as one of the preeminent American writers of the 20th and 21st century.

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