Sunday, 9 November 2014

Paul Auster - The New York Trilogy (1985-1987)

"Brains and guts, the insides of a man. We always talk about trying to get inside a writer to understand his work better. But when you get right down to it, there's not much to find in there - at least not much that's different from what you'd find in anyone else."

'The New York Trilogy' by Paul Auster comprises three linked novels that work together as a deconstruction of the noir detective genre. 'City Of Glass', 'Ghosts' and 'The Locked Room' all offer variations on a similar, outwardly simple detective plot: a man gets pulled in to a seemingly straightforward private investigator job, and his fascination with his target ultimately consumes him. This framework allows Auster to explore themes of obsession, alienation and loneliness, as well as to play various metafictional games, as his hapless PIs find themselves playing the roles of Don Quixote or Captain Ahab as they obsessively hunt down their missing man, with the increasing suspicion that they are merely characters in a novel, acting out a preordained part, all against the backdrop of a hyper-real, magical realist New York. Auster draws parallels between the life of a writer and the life of a private detective - seemingly glamourous, but in reality composed of large stretches of the dull and mundane, while they diligently untangle the correct thread from an infinite tangle of possibilities, whether that thread be the truth about a crime or the perfect sentence. Ultimately the trilogy reveals itself to be about words; the space between words and their meanings and the impossibility of objective observation.
   All this makes 'The New York Trilogy' sound pretty compelling, and while it is certainly a striking, ambitious work with many interesting ideas, I did enjoy it but not without reservations. Auster's metafictional conceits are reminiscent of Italo Calvino's, yet he frequently lacks Calvino's dazzling wit and invention. His exploration of unresolved ambiguities and a mutable city recalls the work of M. John Harrison, without ever quite achieving Harrison's insight or expertise with prose. The premise of the trilogy is similar to that of Jonathan Carroll's 'The Land Of Laughs' and Christopher Priest's 'The Affirmation', yet Auster doesn't ever go as far as Carroll and Priest do in deconstructing their protagonists and the worlds built around them. Paul 'The International Bestselling Author' Auster is also guilty of a certain smugness, whether in the way his narrator expresses surprise that, "given the seriousness and difficulty of Fanshawe's work, and given the public's tendency to stay away from such work, it was a success beyond anything we had imagined possible," in the way he tells the reader at several points the reaction he ought to be having to the text, or in the way he carefully explains all the literary allusions he invokes in case the reader is not well read enough to have spotted them. Although as a cultural ignoramus who only reads grubby paperbacks with garish spaceships and dragons on the covers, actually I found the latter rather helpful for writing this review. Were I being charitable I would say that this actually quite effectively sets up the reveal that the narrator of all three stories is not Auster himself, something that is played with in 'City Of Glass' anyway, but the character that narrates 'The Locked Room' all along. More problematic than any sense of retrodden ground or problems with overall tone on my part is Auster's treatment of his female characters. 'The New York Trilogy' is clearly intentionally in dialogue with the noir detective genre, a genre not renowned for its well balanced portrayal of female characters in the least, so it is unsurprising that the male protagonists only see the female characters in the book in terms of their attraction to them. This is actually quite interestingly explored, as Daniel Quinn's infatuation with Mrs. Stillman is part of what makes him come a cropper, and Mr. Blue assumes that his girlfriend will indefinitely wait for him while he spends all his time on this one case and never even bothers to call her, and of course she doesn't. What is still problematic is the way that all the female characters in the book are entirely defined by their relationships to the invariably male protagonist and antagonist. Which again is genre appropriate, but surely the whole point of post modern engagement with the genre is that you can deconstruct and explore these limitations without falling into them yourself. To go back to 'The Land Of Laughs', Jonathan Carroll manages to make Saxony a likable and engaging character with agency, whilst using how oblivious Thomas is to his poor treatment of her to show us how messed up Thomas actually is. It shows that its possible to give your female characters depth and agency even if your first person narrator is incapable of acknowledging this; I would have liked to see at least an attempt at something like that here.
   Limitations aside, there is a lot that 'The New York Trilogy' does right. 'City Of Glass' explores the relationship between language as a series of words and the abstract concepts it is designed to convey, and likens writing to detective work in that the writer must find the correct word to convey these concepts to the reader, despite the gulf between them. This dissociation is reflected in the characters, the narrator and the author himself. Daniel Quinn is a writer of detective novels who is swept up into a mystery when someone phones him asking for Paul Auster, Private Eye. Quinn winds up masquerading as Auster and taking the Private Eye job. Auster later turns up, but it turns out he is a writer, not a private investigator, and the narrator even takes Quinn's side against Auster in the end, claiming that Auster has treated the character poorly. Quinn's nature as a fictional character is explored, as he disappears after he runs out of pages in his notebook. The lavish meals left for him in the empty house after his breakdown could even have been written in for him by the narrator looking out for him. Of course this is only effective in so much as Quinn is convincing as a character. Auster goes to great lengths to give him personality and depth, hopes and dreams. We spend enough time in his head that we buy him as a person, which provides the tension when we are faced with his nature as a fictional character.
   Quinn's job is to trail Peter Stillman, a man who went to jail because he locked up his son in a basement and didn't talk to him as part of an experiment to discover the original language of humanity before the fall of the Tower Of Babel, and so get closer to the words that hold the true meaning of that which they describe. Stillman has now been released and his son fears that he will try to harm him in some way. The longer Quinn trails Stillman and tries to untangle the sense from his seemingly random actions, the more tenuous his grasp on reality becomes. Quinn eventually has a complete breakdown, and winds up living in an alleyway opposite the Stillman house and going with as little sleep as he can deal with so that he can watch the house as diligently as possible. He later finds out that by this stage Stillman has already killed himself, so he has been in effect watching a man who no longer exists, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. By this stage he has become the lead character in the retelling of 'Don Quixote' that Auster discusses with him when they meet, leading to the narrator's sympathy with him.
   'Ghosts' plays with similar themes and ideas. In a very Calvino-esque move, all the characters in 'Ghosts' are named after colours that represent them. The main detective is Blue, his mark is Black, indicating his shadow-like status as Blue's double, and the man who set up the job is White, indicating his status as an unknowable blank. As Blue holes up in his apartment to watch Black, it slowly dawns on him that Black has been hired by Mr. White to watch Blue, locking both of them in an existential stalemate where they are both relegated to the ghost of each other. Blue and Black ultimately have similar breakdowns, and it ends the only way it can; the two attack each other, and once Black is killed, Blue is free to walk off the page at the end of the story to whatever fate awaits him. 'Ghosts' explores the obsessive nature of both the writer and the detective. Blue and Black's lives are reduced to a life of solitude as might be favoured by a writer; they spend all their time shut in their rooms, composing their reports on each other. Both their actions are so dependent on the actions of the other that, by the time they realise the true nature of their situation, neither of them can walk away from it.
   'The Locked Room' is the final book in the trilogy, and actually by far my favourite of the three. The eponymous locked room is not the classic murder mystery set up, but the secret part inside all of us that is essentially unknowable to anyone else. The story follows the narrator, later revealed to be the narrator of the other two stories in abortive attempts to relate this story, who discovers that his childhood friend Fanshawe has disappeared. Fanshawe's wife, Sophie, gets in contact with the narrator on Fanshawe's instructions. Fanshawe was, naturally, a writer, and left instructions that on his death Sophie should contact the narrator to look through his manuscripts and decide if they are worthy of publication. The narrative takes on the aspect of 'Moby Dick', as Fanshawe changes from the Ahab to the narrator's Ishmael to the narrator's own personal white whale as he becomes obsessed with tracking the missing man down. I think I find this novel the most compelling of the trilogy partially because it has more moving parts, a wider cast for Auster to play with, and partly because Auster gets those intense male friendships so right, the experience of living in each other's pockets to the extent that your identities begin to merge, and being unable to shake it off even after that other person's gone. There is something sexually sublimated about this; Auster explores this in the way that every sexual encounter the narrator has he is standing in for Fanshawe in some way. It gets pretty Freudian. Everything gets tied together, but not in a way that allows any of the characters or the reader to make any sense of it. Quinn and Peter Stillman show up, their incidental role to the story showing how they manage to take on the archetypal roles required of them in 'City Of Glass'. In the end, 'The Locked Room' is about how unknowable somebody else's life is. You can have all the facts and dates, but these tell you nothing of that person's internal life; any life can take unexpected turns at the last moment, and no life story is over until that life is over. As much as the narrator's identity merges with that of Fanshawe, the inner core of Fanshawe that makes him himself is forever unknowable to him.
   'The New York Trilogy', with all its questions about identity and meaning, ultimately deconstructs the very nature of the detective. The detective is the person who walks into the chaos of the crime scene and, through his superior powers of observation and his ability to understand other people's motives, creates order and resolution by solving the crime. However the contradiction at the heart of the detective is that, because he has to be a compelling character, because he has to have some stake in solving the mystery, this makes him as far from an objective observer as possible. What makes Philip Marlowe compelling is that he cannot walk away from a mystery; he has this internal sense of justice that means that he has to solve the mystery even if he doesn't wind up bringing the criminal to justice. However he cannot stop himself from becoming emotionally involved in the case, and the man's an emotional trainwreck as it is; an alcoholic loner prone to violence. How can he possibly hope to understand the objective truth without his subjective position, the thing that makes him narratively compelling, colouring it? With his lack of patience and tendency to jump to conclusions, he's utterly unfit for long term surveillance or collecting evidence. He is a creature who acts on instinct and hunch. Auster's three iterations of the detective novel explore how these qualities, the qualities we most associate with private detectives, make one utterly unsuitable for carrying out the job. They also show how a tendency to get inside other people's minds can be something that completely drives you mad, whilst not providing you with that critical information that might help you solve the case.
   With all its unexplained ambiguities, characters shifting identities, missed opportunities, and unsolved mysteries, Auster also explores how unlike real life crimes the crimes in mystery novels are. A good mystery novel is a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine; marvelously intricate, beautifully designed, fascinating, and incredibly impractical. The idea that murderers leave a series of clues that interlock in just the right pattern for the detective to solve the mystery is compelling, but not at all like how solving murder cases works in real life. Real life is built on ambiguities, misunderstandings and coincidence; there is rarely a logical pattern to be discerned that can give the keen observer the unadulterated truth.
  At the centre of the three novels is New York City itself; a Borgesian labyrinth fraught with hidden significance, secret messages and red herrings, as much a state of mind as a physical city. Each street corner is laden with historical or literary significance, each building haunted by the passions and dreams of those who lived there before. Ripe with decaying grandeur, it is exactly the right place to set a deconstruction of the noir detective genre.

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