“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not…”
In three brilliant variations on the classic detective story, Paul Auster makes the well-traversed terrain of New York City his own, as it becomes a strange, compelling landscape in which identities merge or fade and questions serve only to further obscure the truth.
First published: 1987
Last week the new semester started for me, and I started following a new course called Contemporary Writing. I have to read a couple of novels for this course (four, to be exact) and I’m planning to review all of them on here. These are novels I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read otherwise, so it makes for an interesting diversion from my usual book reviews, I think.
The theme of the first week of the course was “The Era of Postmodernism”, and the novel we had to read was The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (published in 1987). I read it and loved it, but have thought long and hard about how to review this book, and haven’t come up with a very clear answer. This isn’t a straighforward novel — in fact, it’s anything but straightforward. I’ll just start writing, and we’ll see where it leads us!
The New York Trilogy consists of three separate stories called “City of Glass”, “Ghosts” and “The Locked Room”. All three stories feature different characters, but they all have an element of the detective story to them; in all three stories the main character is either looking for another person, or spying on another person. The overarching theme of the entire novel is searching for truth.
However, unlike most detective stories, in which the truth is found in the end (we find out who “did it” or why something happened) this novel gives you no such satisfaction. In fact, it leaves you even more confused than you were when you were in the middle of the story. You realise (with the help of the last story) that these three stories are intertwined with each other in some way, but how? There’s no way to really know for sure, and, trust me, you won’t find out. It all remains vague. There is no ultimate truth.
And that’s why I love it.
I don’t think I had ever read a postmodern novel before this one, so it was a refreshing experience after the previous courses I’ve had in which everything had to make sense in some way or another. Even in modernism there was an idea of one group, with one uniform idea and goal, and in postmodernism that all falls apart. I love the postmodern idea that a person is a collection of different fragments, and there is no such thing as a “unified self”. It’s ultimately about individuality.
Also worth mentioning are the elaborate references to Don Quixote and Alice in Wonderland (more specifically to Humpty Dumpty). The New York Trilogy might be a strange story in some ways, it’s also very intelligent and literary.
If you’re looking for a story in which everything comes together in the end (a “regular” story, so to speak), keep on looking. If you’re looking for a very smart story that’ll confuse the heck out of you (in a good way) and that’ll keep you thinking for a while after you finished it, you will most likely really enjoy this one.