Tuesday 20 November 2012

The New York Trilogy

Austerity Savings

The New York Trilogy
by Paul Auster
Penguin Classics ISBN: 0143039830

When an old friend of over 20 years, who lives in New York, noticed me tweeting last year that it’s been too long since I’d read Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, she sent me an absolutely beautiful paperback edition of said tome over to me for Christmas. Said edition has wonderfully illustrated covers, fashionably pseudo worn with grindhouse-poster style creases, including dust flaps and also “cover illustrations” of each of the three stories inside, all done by the remarkable comics guru Art Spiegelman, who is still, perhaps, best known for his graphic novel holocaust masterworks Maus and Maus 2 (where the Jewish people are drawn as mice and the Nazis drawn as cats). The pages are cut beautifully ragged at the edges (not smooth like a typical novel), which I love, and, to top it off, the inside bears an inscription made out to me from Paul Auster himself (my friend had been lucky enough to catch him for me at a reading). It was a thrilling Christmas present and I can’t believe it’s taken this long to get around in the “read me right now” queue.

Comprising three ‘stories’ - City Of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room - The New York Trilogy was a popular work when I was studying my graphic design degree at college over 20 years ago, which is probably the last time I read it. My memories of it were vague, although I remembered I’d liked it a great deal, but this is hardly that surprising. I’ve read a few of Auster’s works over the intervening years and a common trait in his work, at least the way I see it, is one of incomplete information, lack of any attempt at closure and an almost celebratory dwelling on a kind of spiritual ennui in his characters.

The way the short novellas which were later collected into this tome work together is very strange. There is an implication of connection between the stories which never really identifies itself. The character of Quinn, for example, who spends the majority of City Of Glass following a crazy, obsessed old man through the streets of New York, day in and day out, as he slowly realises that his wanderings are spelling out giant letterforms, is mentioned again in The Locked Room but, since the ending (if you want to call it that, since Auster’s endings never really seem to be anything other than a selection of ideas and questions) of City Of Glass leaves Quinn in a state where his involvement in the back story of The Locked Room seems all but impossible, one wonders in the end if this is the same Quinn or if there are a number of Quinn variations that could be equally as valid (or invalid) as others.

Similarly, when Quinn, who is a writer, is mistaken for somebody named Paul Auster and goes to meet the writer himself, one wonders if the Paul Auster that Quinn meets is the same Paul Auster who is writing the book you are reading, or if he is a totally fictional construct version of Auster. When the ‘narrator’ of The Locked Room suddenly starts talking in a more implicit way to the reader by specifically mentioning City Of Glass and Ghosts as experiments in writing, one wonders if the character narrator of the story is supposed to be Paul Auster and, if he is, is he the same Paul Auster who is a character in City Of Glass or is he a second fictional variant of Paul Auster... or is the writer perhaps writing as himself, which seems unlikely given the events described in the third story.

This kind of thing may drive some readers mad, I would imagine, as Auster doesn’t just break “the fourth wall”, but drives a truck through it repeatedly until the bricks and mortar are a fine, white powder blowing away in the wind. But it’s something I’ve always kind of liked about works of art myself.

There’s kind of an artificial frisson of possible relationships between the three segments set up by placing these three “stories” together and calling them a trilogy but, like other novels I’ve read by Auster, nothing really that you can quite put your finger on. And that almost seems to be the point in some ways. What the writer does is to leave the reader with a series of ideas and a number of questions which he then refuses to answer with any kind of clarity or satisfaction. Instead, we have a series of clues, or more properly, ideas of clues, dotted about the text as little chunks that can be latched onto but which won’t help the reader reach any set conclusion as to the fate or, indeed, purpose of any of the characters. Somewhat like real life in that respect.

For example, the fact that Quinn writes detective fiction under the name of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary creation William Wilson could be considered a sign post to something vital to the understanding of the text and the nature of the characters... or it might not. When the Peter Stillman that Quinn is following in City Of Glass suddenly becomes two Peter Stillmans and he follows one and not the other, is the other Peter Stillman the same as the Peter Stillman who turns up as an entirely, seemingly, different character in The Locked Room? One doesn’t know and Auster is certainly not going out of his way to give the reader any kid of explanation for his trouble. But then again, with such a fantastic set of... erm... set ups, would the reader really want to be spoon fed with cheap summations of one of several explanations and endings for these stories, or would the reader rather be left to be haunted with the endless possibilities of closure that may or may not arise from each of the parts that make up the whole of this novel? Paul Auster presumably favours the latter state of affairs and, as one of his readers, I have to say I don’t disagree with his decision.

The three stories kept me both fascinated and hungry for more revelations which would never come as I read further into the prose and it’s been a true pleasure to read this ‘mighty’ work of fiction once more. I’m going to have to plug back into Auster again sometime and catch up with his later work as it progresses. This one comes with a strong recommendation from me as long as you’re a reader who doesn’t mind not reading stories that have a beginning, a middle or an end... Auster tends to write about just the middles, I think, and leaves the rest for the reader to bring to the table. Film fans may also want to check out the brilliant movie Smoke, from 1995, which he wrote and which he also, uncredited, helped direct.

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