The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
When the web site Canon Fodder conducted an informal poll of 79
bloggers to select the best work of American fiction during the last 25
years, Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy received the most votes.
(However, David Foster Wallace's
Infinite Jest, received more points based
on the scoring system used in tabulating
results.) Auster's book has also developed
an enthusiastic following overseas, especially
in France, where it won the Prix France
Culture de Littérature Étrangère.
The appeal of this work to critics and writers
is understandable. To some extent, critics and
writers are the heroes of the inter-locking
short novels that comprise Auster's trilogy.
And the issues Auster's characters deal with
are the classic problems of post-modernist
criticism. What is the relationship of a text to reality? Can an author
impart meaning to the world through writing about it? Is writing a
sacred responsibility or just a whimsical game? Do we write to engage
with the world or to escape from it?
If these comments give you a Derrida fever and the Lacanian blues,
let me assure you that Auster's book is no dry academic affair. In
fact, The New York Trilogy follows, to some degree, the formulas of
detective fiction. This incorporation of genre devices adds to the
post-modern flavor of the work, and also imparts an evocative flim
noir quality to Auster's tales. Imagine how Raymond Chandler might
have told stories if he had spent too much time reading contemporary
literary criticism. That will give you some idea of the peculiar tone of
You don't meet many real detectives in this book. Instead you find
writers who get caught up in strange mysteries. In City of Glass, the
first novel in the trilogy, the protagonist is a writer of detective
fiction who finds himself involved in an adventure after being
mistaken for a real private investigator. In the concluding story, The
Locked Room, a failed author becomes obsessed with a successful
novelist who has disappeared, and devotes his life to tracking him
The characters in The New York Trilogy always seem to be writing.
They are writing stories or letters or poems or reports of their
investigations. But despite their best attempts to circumscribe and
explain the world with these texts, they only seem to cut themselves
off more and more from life by devoting themselves to the written
word. To add to the complexity, another writer -- Paul Auster
himself -- plays a bit part from time to time in these stories. Or
perhaps this is another Paul Auster, unrelated to the author of the
book. In the world of The New York Trilogy, where coincidence and
chance constantly drive the action, almost anything is possible.
The futility of words is an odd theme for a writer to embrace. Yet
Auster does it with a vengeance. In City of Glass, the pseudo-
detective is called in to help a man named Peter Stillman. When he
meets Stillman and asks for a description of the case (a classic
moment in all detective fiction), this is his client's reply: “If I can give
you the words you need to have, it will be a great victory. . . . Long
ago there was mother and father. I remember none of that. They say:
mother died. Who they are I cannot say. . . . No mother, then. Ha ha.
Such is my laughter now, my belly burst of mumbo jumbo. Ha ha ha.”
And so on, with greater and greater incoherence, for several more
No, this is not some experiment in literary style. Stillman was
victimized as a child, kept in isolation by a crazy father for nine years.
He never learned to speak normally, and now is fearful that the
parent who did this to him, about to be released from incarceration,
will come back to exact revenge. Yet the way that Auster turns issues
of textual interpretation into a pulp detective tale is highly
characteristic of this writer's peculiar perspective on matters.
The New York Trilogy is very much the quintessential post-modern
work of fiction. It is ambiguous and open-ended. Yet the stories also
seem closed and almost claustrophobic, with the plots of the three
novels turning in on themselves. The book is multi-layered and
invites the reader to approach it from many different angles, but also
works as straightforward story-telling. Yet Auster's greatest
achievement may be his ability to achieve all this, while staying true
to the pacing and narrative build of a detective tale. After all, there
are plenty of deep post-modern books, but here is one that is a real
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985. These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time.
In this installment of The
New Canon, Ted Gioia
reviews The New York
Trilogy by Paul Auster.
|The Best in Fiction Since 1985