marginalia || The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster

And then, most important of all: to remember who I am. To remember who I am supposed to be. I do not think this is a game. On the other hand, nothing is clear. For example: who are you? And if you think you know, why do you keep lying about it? I have no answer. All I can say is this: listen to me. My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name.

I’ve finished reading The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. Join me in a moment of silence that could only mean, “Hella yeah.” I am treating this as an accomplishment. I’ve read several Auster books before, and have an unhealthy fascination with his wives [not to mention a crush on his daughter] — but this is the first time I read what has to be his most celebrated work [which was originally three separate novels that have been released as a single volume for years now — as Auster eventually intended it to be].

Although I know several people who will disown me if I dare say that Auster’s Trilogy is, well, “Okay,” I’m risking it: It was okay enough, I guess. First things first, though: It impressed me. The craft, especially. Just thinking about how Auster plotted it all, how he made the characters work. How he run us through the concepts and questions and not-quite-answers.

Whenever anyone asks me what I think of Paul Auster’s work I always say: He doesn’t touch my heart. Whatever fascination and admiration I have for him, is purely on a technical [craft] perspective. His works, for me, do not resonate. I am in awe of his genius, but regard it from a distance. I have always respected him. I’ve always been fascinated about how he thinks, how he lays it all out on paper. I’ve always wanted to crawl inside his head. But: He doesn’t touch my heart.

But I wanted to read The New York Trilogy, though I was never actually compelled to before. And so I struck a deal with Kerry to read Auster, after we read Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved almost simultaneously. Not so much a readalong, or a joint discussion, but, well, more like a security blanket: Someone out there was trying to conquer Auster at the same time that I was. And I borrowed Kael’s copy, mostly because it was an edition prettier than mine. Hee. And then I buckled up.

[And, well, perhaps it is testament to my complicated relationship with Auster: The rest of this post shall take on an air of confuzzlement. Ye have been warned. I mean, I won’t even be talking about the book per se. Mostly my confuzzlement in relation to reading the book. If you came here looking for enlightenment, or commiseration: Ye have been conned.]

First up was City of Glass, which I read warily. It would take a couple more pages for me to figure out why this was. “It was a wrong number that started it,” it began, and it was a wrong number that seemingly dictates the soon-to-shatter life of one Daniel Quinn, secret novelist. Mistaken for private detective Paul Auster, he embarks on a case that involves an unsettling father-and-son pair, a lot of questions about existence, being, self-ness, reality, delusions, and the grain of truth behind illusions. Yes.

And then came Ghosts, which I didn’t like much. Let me demonstrate. According to the jacket copy, Ghosts is: “Blue, a student of Brown, has been hired by White to spy on Black. From a window of a rented room on Orange Street, Blue stalks his subject, who is staring out of his window.” Yes. Okay, great. It was very nearly one solid block of narrative and and and colors. And more questions. And more concepts. And more existential detective-y meta-narratives that had me gasping into my drink [I read most of it while I was oh-so-disrespectfully attending a poetry reading.] Again, yes.

My favorite, though, is definitely The Locked Room. A man named Fanshawe has disappeared, leaving behind a wife, a son, and revolutionary genius writing that fits two suitcases “as heavy as a man” — Sophie, Fanshawe calls our narrator [who, it so happens, is the narrator of the previous two stories], a childhood friend of Fanshawe. And what follows is primarily a story of subversion: either of another’s identity or one’s own. As with the previous two novels, it gets rather grisly. Disturbing. Unsettling. Confuzzling.

I’ve taken note of Auster’s occasional earnestness before. That is, I find so very little, hm, giddiness in his fiction, when I find so much in his interviews. Note that I have never read an Auster interview/essay/poetics shiznit that I didn’t like. The man loves writing, he breathes it. Talking about a turn of phrase, talking about the very act of being still with his notebook — Paul Auster likes his job. He’s so passionate about it — that is what touches my heart about Auster. And I found that in The Locked Room, not a direct translation of his non-fictional work, but a dimension of it. Oh, see how our narrator talks about a kiss:

Then, without warning, we both straightened up, turned towards each other, and began to kiss. After that, it is difficult for me to speak of what happened. Such things have little to do with words, so little, in fact, that it seems almost pointless to try to express them. If anything, I would say we were falling into each other, that we were falling so fast and so far that nothing could catch us. Again, I lapse into metaphor. But that is probably beside the point. For whether or not I can talk about it does not change the truth of what happened. The fact is, there never was such a kiss, and in all my life I doubt there can ever be such a kiss again.

Although many times I treated The New York Trilogy as a puzzle the reader is obligated to solve — what with recurring themes and characters and names and scenarios — I enjoyed it immensely, even if I was very much aware that a second and a third and a fourth reading was required for me to freely enjoy it. I want to be lost in it in the future, not so guarded. It will most probably confuse me still, parts of it may forever be not understood by li’l ol’ me. But I suppose that comes with Auster. And so, again: Yes.

To Kerry: I eagerly await your thoughts on this. Mostly to help me out with the confuzzlement. Everyone, you are very much welcome to enlighten me.

26 thoughts on “marginalia || The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster


    Did not read it all the way through because I’m a spoiler-phobe, and I do intend to read this, but I get what you are saying in the first part.

  2. I wholeheartedly (har har) share your assessment of this trilogy – fascinating, very well-crafted, intellectually stimulating…not emotionally engaging. Which is fine. Not every book needs to grab my heart; my brain likes some candy too. I wouldn’t want to subsist on a steady diet of Auster and only Auster, but I do enjoy him. And I’ve only read one interview with him (the compiled Paris Review one), but it was so great. I agree, there is a warmth and earnestness there that is not reflected in the New York Trilogy.

    1. Not every book needs to grab my heart.

      Agreed. I admire Auster, and parts of Trilogy did make my heart flutter. But generally, I’ll just attribute this to how Auster writes. He’s not cold, no, but he’s chosen to engage the mind more than the emotions, and I respect him for that because he does that well.

  3. I really, really, really want to read this trilogy. Never read Auster before but I’ve been told this is as good of a place as any to start.

    (Re: daughter – holy shit, she’s as pretty as Sophie Dahl – my literary daughter crush).

    1. Hi, Selena. I actually wish I’d begun with this book. I’d read about three other books of his, but dawdled with this one. I think if I had read this first, I’d be a ginormous fan. :] [Hustvedt and Auster’s daughter name is Sophie too! She’s a singer, actress. And whenever there’s a write-up, it always says that she’s Auster and Siri’s daughter, haha. Awesome. I Googled Sophie Dahl. Whoa. She’s literary royalty!]

  4. I really liked ‘New York Trilogy’ but again, yeah, not because it ‘touched my heart’ but because I found it really interesting. Structural tricks in direct prose – a rare combination and one I found very easy and wonderful to read.

    I didn’t expect to read anything else by Paul Auster for a long time, if ever, but ended up reading ‘The Book of Illusions’ this April and, to use your term again, it did ‘touch my heart,’ unexpectedly. The prose is direct, the structure is full of tricks (layered narrative!) but there was warmth and something very affecting about it all (or maybe I am just a big sucker for ‘the passage of time’).

    1. The Book of Illusions was actually my first Auster book, and loved it. Really loved it. But I’ve found that it didn’t exactly stick to me afterwards. I remember loving it, but that’s all: Memory. I gave the wrong impression up there, I think: I like Auster, but it’s not an all-consuming love the way I love, say, Siri Hustvedt. He impresses me, and I know that his books — particularly Trilogy — will stand the test of time. I know I’ll reread him eventually. Right now, I’m very focused on affect.

  5. I, too, really liked “New York Trilogy.” I first fell in love with his genius with words and narrative structure. But, you know, though I accede that his writing can be mainly brain candy, Auster’s works do touch my heart. For instance, I really got into the New York Trilogy because of Peter Stillman’s beautiful spiel, but also because of how sad a character I found Stillman.

    Also, I find that Auster does male grief really well. There’s Quinn in City of Glass, and there’s David Zimmer in Book of Illusions. Had to read those passages about grief really slowly because, well, I could feel it.

    That said, I agree with you: Ghosts, unfortunately, did not touch my heart and just gave me a headache.

    1. Ghosts gave me a headache, one that I hated more because I just didn’t get drawn in to the story for the headache to be worth it, haha. All in all, I liked The New York Trilogy. It deserves a rereading, and another. Maybe in those rereadings, my heart will relent a little? :] Oh, and The Book of Illusions was my first Auster. :]

  6. Have you read Oracle Night? As much as I love the New York Trilogy, Oracle Night definitely gets to me more, and I think there is an emotional aspect to that.

  7. This looks like a beautiful edition of the book. I’ve been meaning to get the old one that I keep seeing in bargain bins, but this one looks so much better!

    1. I actually have a different edition, but it felt too bland for what the experience seemed to call for, and so I borrowed my friend’s copy. It really is very very pretty. :)

  8. Agreed that his writing about writing has an inherent passion that it’s impossible to overlook; I love reading his essays and interviews.

    I remember noting a lot of quotes and snippets from this trilogy, and enjoying it overall, but I do understand and share what you describe as feeling a distance from the work.

    1. This tends to create a double-image of sorts when it comes to my experience of his fiction: I know he loves what he’s doing, and he’s obviously put a lot of thought into the process and the product itself, so with that alone, there’s a default liking. Distance or no. I once said I found him cold, but that was before I read his on-writing pieces. :] Auster will never be cold to me again. Distant, sure. Brain-ouchy, at times. Cold, nope.

  9. He doesn’t touch my heart. Whatever fascination and admiration I have for him, is purely on a technical [craft] perspective.

    That sums up my feelings about Auster pretty well. I do enjoy reading him but it’s hard for me to feel actually drawn to it from a lack of visceral connection.

    1. I think that’s why I want to reread this book — Since I’ve chipped away at the guessing-game aspect of it, the next time around, I’ll focus on how it makes me feel, ya know? Because I’ve read so many Auster interviews, and I really love how he talks about writing — I know that visceral-ness is in his fiction somewhere.

  10. Did not touch my heart too. Yet this must be the only Auster book I liked. Superb craftsmanship, I agree. Of the three I also liked The Locked Room best because I thought it provided the key to understanding the Trilogy as a totality.


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