Friday, February 16, 2007

New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

I have not read The Brooklyn Follies, which came out last year but was very interested to read Jabberwock say that any thought of the author behind the text was out of his mind within a few pages, given that in his Trilogy Auster is very hard to ignore. The little blurb at the front of the trilogy says the three "interconnected" (they are very tenuously connected so push the boundaries of being a trilogy) novels "exploit the elements of standard detective fiction". They're certainly not your conventional detective narratives! I think this thought is key to Auster's technique:
"The detective is the one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events [i.e. constituted by the world of the book] in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them. In effect, the writer and the detective are interchangeable. The reader sees the world through the detective's eye, experiencing the proliferation of its details as if for the first time. He has become awake to the things around him, as if they might speak to him, as if, because of the attentiveness he now brings to them, they might begin to carry a meaning other than the simple fact of their existence."
And so, in the first novel, City of Glass, there is no detective, not really. What we have is Daniel Quinn, a consumer of detective fiction. You might also say that he is a writer, except that he has adopted a pen name, William Wilson and now "Quinn was no longer that part of him that could write books" - Wilson leads an independent life to the point that Quinn no longer believes that he and Wilson are the same person. But one night, Quinn receives phone call for the "famous detective", Paul Auster. My old friend Flann O'Brien would have loved this! Quinn doesn't really know what to do but to assume the mantle of being Paul Auster, and thus embarks upon the task of keeping Peter Stillman, just released from prison, away from his son, Peter Stillman. He had been in prison for child abuse: he had locked his son up in isolation:
"The father talked about God. he wanted to know if God had a language. Don't ask me what this means. I am only telling you because I know the words. The father thought a baby might speak it if the baby saw no people."
Further narrative complexity is introduced when Quinn starts providing accounts of other narratives - initially real ones, such as Robinosn Crusoe, but then invented ones, in particular a book purportedly written by Peter Stillman, which in turn quotes other narratives (one made up by Peter Stillman).

Eventually Quinn gets to perform his task, or does he? He goes to the railway station where he knows Peter Stillman is arriving:
"As Stillman reached the threshold of the station, he put his bag down once again and paused. At that moment Quinn allowed himself a glance to Stillman's right, surveying the crowd to be doubly sure he made no mistakes. What happened then defied explanation. Directly behind Stillman, heaving into view just inches behind his right shoulder, another man stopped ... His face was the exact double of Stillman's."
Poor Quinn: he chooses one to follow, but by the end of the novel, he is wondering what would have happened had he followed the other. The one he does follow intrigues him: he makes long walks each day around New York - he and Quinn both have red notebooks, and one day Quinn has the bright idea of creating little maps of the journey taken by Stillman each day, and thus finds yet another narrative: each day's map looks a little like a letter. Quinn gets so engrossed he forgets his client, and feels he just has to meet Stillman. He sits alongside him on a park bench, staring until Stillman turns to him (at least five minutes later!) - I like their initial meeting:
At last Stillman turns to him. In a surprisingly gentle tenor voice he said, "I'm sorry, but it won't be possible for me to talk to you."
"I haven't said anything." said Quinn.
"That's true," said Stillman. "But you must understand that I'm not in the habit of talking to strangers."
"I repeat," said Quinn, "that I haven't said anything."
"Yes, I heard you the first time. But aren't you interested in knowing why?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Well put. I can see you're a man of sense."
Of course, they have several other conversations, although (a) Stillman never seems to recognise Quinn and (b) Quinn always uses a different name for each subsequent meeting.

The only other thing I want to mention about this novel is that at one stage, for reasons I won't get into, Quinn decides he needs to actually talk to the famous detective, Paul Auster, but there doesn't seem to be any such person. All he can find is one Paul Auster, novelist, who happens to be married to "Siri" (in real life, Paul Auster is married to Siri Hustvedt) who is no help to him. Then, right at the end, the narrator speaks of being Auster's friend.

Ghosts is more straight-forward, and the least satisfying of the three novels for me. Basically, a fellow called Blue is employed by a fellow called White to sit in an apartment room and watch Black, who occupies another apartment across the street. All that Black seems to do is sit in his room and write: Blue, trying to make a record of all Black's movements is given little to write. of course, for anyone watching Blue, all he seems to do is sit in his room and write although, as he becomes more sure of Black's routines, Blue does take the chance to go watch a game (baseball seems to be a thing of Austers) or a movie. Maybe Black is doing the same. Eventually, Blue becomes oppressed with the idea that White has simultaneously employed Black to watch him, or maybe that there's no White at all.

I liked the third novel (The Locked Room) most, probably because it was the least mind-altering in its structure - although the names Peter Stillman and Daniel Quinn both make an appearance. Again, there is no formal detective, but our narrator takes on a detective-like task: he is to write a biography of a childhood friend, Fanshawe. This comes about because Fanshawe is believed to be dead, and his widow asked our narrator (he has no name) to look through the voluminous papers left behind. They turn out to be unpublished novels, plays and short stories, which our hero gets published, to great popular acclaim. So far, fairly straight-forward, but then the narrator gets a letter, evidently from Fanshawe. This provokes the narrator's search for clues as to where he might find Fanshawe, under the guise of writing his biography. We don't get a very clear idea as to why Fanshawe should have chosen to stage his own death, but there is the suggestion that he doesn't think very much of himself as a person, that people's lives will be made better by his departure, including that of his wife, who would be much better off with the narrator: I think that this is because the effort/self-containment required of him to actually be an author meant that there was little left over for those around him. He couldn't function as a husband and father: is the narrator any better when he takes on at least the guise of an author?

I've just scratched the surface of one of the themes of these novels (authorship), there is much more which could be talked about, some of which is raised in this discussion.

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