THE NEW YORK TRILOGY by Paul Auster

Do writers have real lives?

This is the implicit question that lies at the heart of these three separate though interconnected stories. They all share the same setting (New York, obviously), the genre (Detective fiction with an existential twist) and each deal with themes of identity, isolation and intrigue.

In The Locked Room, the final part of the trilogy, the author’s voice steps in to highlight the similarities: “These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about”.

In the first story, City Of Glass, Quinn is employed as a private eye and describes his assignment to watch Stillman as a “glorified tail-job” which entails long hours  watching and waiting for something to happen. Nothing does.

When detectives are involved there is the expectation that a crime has been, or is about to be, committed but based on his observations this is nothing but a wild goose chase.

Quinn also knows that his employers have mistaken him for Paul Auster but , bored with his life and curious to find out where it will lead, he takes the case anyway

Paul Auster writes a cameo role for himself.

Having Auster appear, presumably as a version of himself, is the kind of smart ass postmodernism that leaves the author open to accusations of pretentiousness but it actually makes sense here because this is, in essence, an investigation into his own life as a full-time writer.

Writing is portrayed as a profession that involves being locked inside his own head, inhabiting an imaginary world that exists only in the mind. So when Quinn gets to the point where he “stopped thinking of himself as real”, you assume that this is also how Auster feels when working on his fiction. More explicitly still, we are told that “To be Auster meant to be a man without interior, a man with no thoughts”.

Where facts ends and invention begins is also a constant dilemma for Blue in Ghosts. He is paid by White to watch Black but not told why. As in City Of Glass, this proves to be a trail that leads the watcher up a blind alley.

In all three stories identities become blurred and the impression is that, rather than watching someone else, the observers are actually staring at themselves. This explains why, for instance, we are told that “The only way for Blue to have a sense of what is happening is to be inside Black’s mind” or “What bogs him down is not involvement but separation”.

Charlie Meadows . “I’ll show you the life of the mind!”

Ultimately, writers are defined by their work alone and don’t exist as people in their own right. We discover that Black has arranged for himself to be watched to prove that he exists since “once inside himself, he can no longer conceive of being anywhere else”.

These are solitary , sedentary lives that are “almost no life at all”. This “passageway into the self” is an inner journey undertaken without any comfort of belief in a higher power or guiding principle for  “In the end, each life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose”.

As these stories all lead to loneliness, desperation and madness, I kept thinking of the scene in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink where John Goodman, as crazed killer Charlie Meadows, rages down a burning corridor shouting repeatedly “I’ll show the life of the mind!”

The overriding message of The New York Trilogy seems to be that to achieve anything truly creative you must be prepared to confront your inner demons and  flirt with insanity.

Advertisements