The New York Trilogy
by Paul Auster
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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

When the web site Canon Fodder conducted an informal
poll of 79 bloggers to select the best work of American
fiction during the last 25 years, Paul Auster's
The New
York Trilogy
received the most votes.  (However, David
Foster Wallace's
Infinite Jest, received
more points based on the scoring
system used in tabulating results.)  
Auster's book has also developed an
enthusiastic following overseas,
especially in France, where it won
Prix  France Culture de Littérature

The appeal of this work to critics and
writers is understandable. To some ex-
tent, critics and writers are the heroes of the inter-locking
short novels that comprise Auster's trilogy. And the issues
Auster's characters deal with are the classic problems of
postmodernist criticism.  What is the relationship of a text to
reality? Can an author impart meaning to the world through
writing about it? Is writing a sacred responsibility or just a
whimsical game?  Do we write to engage with the world or
to escape from it?

If these comments give you a Derrida fever and the
Lacanian blues, let me assure you that Auster's book is no
dry academic affair.  In fact,
The New York Trilogy follows, to
some degree, the formulas of detective fiction. This
incorporation of genre devices adds to the post-modern
flavor of the work, and also imparts an evocative
flim noir
quality to Auster's tales.  Imagine how Raymond Chandler
might have told stories if he had spent too much time
reading contemporary literary criticism. That will give you
some idea of the peculiar tone of Auster's work.

You don't meet many real detectives in this book. Instead
you find writers who get caught up in strange mysteries.  In
City of Glass, the first novel in the trilogy, the protagonist is a
writer of detective fiction who finds himself involved in an
adventure after being mistaken for a real private investigator.
In the concluding story,
The Locked Room, a failed author
becomes obsessed with a successful novelist who has
disappeared, and devotes his life to tracking him down.

See also
Leviathan by Paul Auster reviewed by Ted Gioia
Invisible by Paul Auster reviewed by Ted Gioia
Man in the Dark by Paul Auster reviewed by Ted Gioia

The characters in The New York Trilogy always seem to be
writing.  They are writing stories or letters or poems or
reports of their investigations.  But despite their best
attempts to circumscribe and explain the world with these
texts, they only seem to cut themselves off more and more
from life by devoting themselves to the written word.  To
add to the complexity, another writer -- Paul Auster himself
-- plays a bit part from time to time in these stories.  Or
perhaps this is another Paul Auster, unrelated to the author
of the book. In the world of
The New York Trilogy, where
coincidence and chance constantly drive the action, almost
anything is possible.

The futility of words is an odd theme for a writer to
embrace. Yet Auster does it with a vengeance.   In
City of
, the pseudo-detective is called in to help a man named
Peter Stillman.  When he meets Stillman and asks for a
description of the case (a classic moment in all detective
fiction), this is his client's reply: “If I can give you the words
you need to have, it will be a great victory. . . . Long ago
there was mother and father. I remember none of that. They
say: mother died.  Who they are I cannot say. . . . No
mother, then.  Ha ha.  Such is my laughter now, my belly
burst of mumbo jumbo.  Ha ha ha.” And so on, with greater
and greater incoherence, for several more pages.

No, this is not some experiment in literary style.  Stillman
was victimized as a child, kept in isolation by a crazy father
for nine years. He never learned to speak normally, and now
is fearful that the parent who did this to him, about to be
released from incarceration, will come back to exact
revenge.  Yet the way that Auster turns issues of textual
interpretation into a pulp detective tale is highly
characteristic of this writer's peculiar perspective on matters.

The New York Trilogy is very much the quintessential post-
modern work of fiction.   It is ambiguous and open-ended.
Yet the stories also seem closed and almost claustrophobic,
with the plots of the three novels turning in on themselves.  
The book is multi-layered and invites the reader to approach
it from many different angles, but also works as
straightforward story-telling.  Yet Auster's greatest
achievement may be his ability to achieve all this, while
staying true to the pacing and narrative build of a detective
tale.  After all, there are plenty of deep post-modern books,
but here is one that is a real page-turner.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense

Further Clues:

Interview with Paul Auster by Michael Wood in The
Paris Review

"Shallow Graves: The Novels of Paul Auster" by James
Wood in The New Yorker

"Spellbound" by Michael Dirda in The New York Review
of Books

Stillman's Maze

"Metaphysical Mystery Tour" by Toby Olson
No, he is not the love child of Jacques
Lacan and Agatha Christie.  He merely
writes that way.  In a series of short novels
from the mid-1980s, later published as
New York Trilogy
, Paul
Auster blurred the lines
between textual inter-
pretation and crime
scene investigation with
such audacity that fans
were ready to conscript
him as guest host of
America’s Most Wanted
(The Semiotic Edition)
.  In
an age when most pedi-
gree authors were stepping back from
experimental postures, Auster has proven to
be something of a wild card.  Few novelists
are less predictable, and every new book of
his holds some unexpected surprise.   But
certain themes recur again and again in
Auster's work, notably a sense of existential
isolation mitigated by a love-hate
relationship with words, the empowered text
playing the role an elusive lover might fill in
a tale of romance.  Above all, Auster moves
from straight narrative to twisted meta-
narrative with such ease, that readers can
sometimes feel more than seven degrees of
separation from surface level of the plot.   
In truth, not all of his characters are guilty
of weighty crimes.  It’s just part of the
Austerian pose, a personality type that
doesn't necessarily come with a rap sheet.
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Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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