Thoughts: The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster

Oh my goodness. This book marks a great milestone in my TBR list, and also serves to show just how behind I am (and getting behinder all the time, as this year seems to be the year of Reading Books Not On My TBR). This book was recommended to me on my honeymoon in Morpeth, by a lad at the Waterstones there. That was in October 2015.

I wish I could go back to Morpeth and tell that man how right he was. What a good book.

No spoiler warning today, because frankly I don’t know if it’s even possible to spoiler The New York Trilogy!

So, The New York Trilogy isn’t really a trilogy (as it’s read nowadays) – it’s three stories in a single volume, and… I’m not sure it warrants the moniker “New York”, as New York itself doesn’t seem to feature all that strongly in the work? I might be wrong here, as I am not a New Yorker. City of Glass features very detailed descriptions of walks taken in New York, but to me that was almost an incidental fact.

Another disclaimer: I’m not a huge mystery reader, so I will probably have missed a lot of fun easter eggs here, and not noticed the use or subversion of various tropes.

The New York Trilogy is aggressively metafictional. It’s like Auster is almost taunting your suspension of disbelief. He’s pressing himself right up against the fourth wall, and telling you to drop your disbelief back where it was, because this is a story. The writing style itself reinforces this, being of that particular rambling, thought-heavy style that shouldn’t work. It should lose itself in tangents and circles, but Auster keeps the stories going in the right direction, always. Whether that’s forwards, backwards, outside, inside, wherever we need to go.

Something that he did a lot was this sort of Russian doll of narratives, where there are stories within stories, or at least voices within voices, and not just going deeper, either, but sometimes pulling back to show us that what we took for the sort of atmospheric neutral narrative is actually another narrator, adding their own layer and connections to the story. I liked that. The end of City of Glass pulled this off really well, revealing that what we thought was A Story Being Told To Us was actually a meticulously recorded notebook explained through the lens of another character with his own opinions on the story, and his own wishes.

The second story, Ghosts, begins in this sublimely minimalist sequence of colours that made me think of the creation of the earth, either biblical or factual, or as an artistic representation (it actually reminded me of the paint-and-paper style of this video). All the characters in the story are named after colours, and this might mean something, or it might not. Auster avoids easy connotations between characters and names (or does he?).

The Locked Room is where things start coming together, though we’ve seen the same themes pop up throughout the first two stories already, glimpsed from different angles. And when I say “coming together”, I don’t mean fitting neatly into a frame to form a finished picture. I mean just that the pieces are all together in the same place. They don’t quite go together, though Auster half-gives shadowy clues as to the instructions. He still leaves us with the mystery a mystery, but now we can see the whole thing.

And I love that?

I love that it doesn’t quite fit together, that the reappearing characters aren’t the same people, that you can never know another person, that the story doesn’t start and end where we can see it, that you can’t watch another person 24/7, not even in fiction. I love the ending mysteries – people vanishing in some kind of transcendental religious experiment, becoming language, the desecration and miracle that is language, identity and becoming. I think I just like the cracks in stuff (though I admit that I might only like those cracks that have been filled with gold).

Other things I liked: the tangents! So many little interesting facts! I learned about Don Quixote, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Winchester Mystery House (which I had already learned something about in Brian Catling’s fantastic, overreaching, flawed The Vorrh). The New York Trilogy is well-paced and flowing, but it has so much in it.

I don’t think I can do justice to The New York Trilogy, and it makes me write like a pretentious idiot, but trust me, you have to read this one. I know I’ll be reading it again.

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