The New York Trilogy
by Paul Auster
Essay 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
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 the
Prix  France Culture de
Littérature Étrangère

The appeal of this work to critics
and writers is understandable. To some
extent, 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

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
postmodern 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 Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Essay published: July 18, 2008
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
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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Click on image to purchase
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
The New York Trilogy,
Paul Auster blurred the
lines between textual
interpretation 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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