Friday, September 04, 2009

book review - The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster

The New York Trilogy is one of those books that could best be described as patchy. Split into three parts in some ways it could best be described as a modern attempt to lovingly take apart and reassemble the detective fiction genre.

The first story City of Glass tells of the descent into madness of a writer who willingly takes on the role of a private investigator for a bit of excitement. But he is quickly out of his depth and ends up losing the case, the client and his own mind. Everyone seems to be leading double lives with the main character Daniel Quinn using false names and identities.

Even the name of the private detective, Paul Auster, is a red herring because he confesses to not being anything of the sort. Then there is the subject of the case Peter Stillman who has apparently been a victim of parental abuse by a father who is just about to come out of prison. His release and apparent death threats are what necessitates the appointment of Quinn to watch the father. He watches him and engages him in disguised conversation but reveals so much that the old man commits suicide. But the focus then switches back to Stillman. Who is he and what does he want? Living as a tramp Quinn only manages to enter the apartment where he was first hired months after it has been vacated and there is slowly loses touch with reality.

Language, identity and what is or is not reality are all key here. A great deal of time is spent expounding on about the tower of Babel and the power of language. That even risks losing the reader as it appears that after weeks of effort it is actually an irrelevance.

But the theme of uncertainty, with the detective themselves being open to being a victim, is carried on in the second story Ghosts. Here a private eye named Blue who has been trained by Brown is hired by White to watch Black. The use of names as colours only goes so far and before long that device is easily forgotten. Instead what becomes clear is that the lives of Blue and Black are becoming completely entangled and White is the dangerous presence.

Blue loses himself in Black’s life – a pretty boring life – and eventually the detective breaks the chains and ends up taking his frustration out on Black. Again themes of identity, secrecy and the potential for madness are all here.

Finally the most modern feeling story, with Ghosts having a 1950s feel, the Locked Room is a play on a classic detective story device. Usually the dead body lies behind the locked room and the detective spends the rest of the story trying to establish who killed the victim. Here however the figure behind the locked room is alive and potentially has the power to destroy the life of the main character. Two school friends lose touch and one is surprised to find his old friend was a literary talent. Helping bring his work to market he also falls in love and marries his friend’s wife.

Everyone assumes the old school friend Fanshawe is dead but a meeting talking through a locked door reveals he is alive and quite conscious of the decisions he has made to isolate himself.

Again you feel this is about identity with the author handing over his life to a ‘better man’ as he looks to concentrate on some sort of penance for past actions.

After closing the last page you don’t feel a sense of satisfaction. If anything you wonder if themes like the red notebook that pops up in the stories and other echoes are there to trip you up. The feeling of being stupid is not a pleasant one and although certain sections did entertain the overall experience is a mixed one.

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