Thoughts on Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy (1987)
The New York Trilogy is a perplexing, violently engaging and ultimately frustrating work. It fails as much as it succeeds, and this is, in a sense, its most pertinent success. It is a novel of floating signifiers, of dead-end symbols, of almost-but-not-quite, and when it does tie things up it does so as loosely as possible.
The most demanding and compelling of the three is ‘City of Glass’, a metafictional labyrinth actively engaged with some of the biggest theoretical concerns of the 20th Century. Perhaps because of my own theoretical interests, it is hard not to view the novel, and this part in particular, as simply being a fictional equivalent of all the best poststructuralism that preceded it. Still, Auster is a talented novelist and no matter how derivative it may or may not be of what post-1968 Theory has long made evident, his abilities as a writer never allow the novel to be anything less than intriguing.
Identities blur and fade, origins fall to pieces and language itself is exposed as inherently riddled with failure. Language, and thus we, are in a post-Fall state. The Fall from Eden “not only records the fall of man, but the fall of language”. As much as it is a clever, scriptible detective story, The New York Trilogy is a brutal evocation of madness, isolation and disintegration. The characters are all involved in arbitrary, de(con)structive situations they could simply walk away from. That they don’t is essential: their realisations of the necessity and impossibility of language, always preceding their personal Falls, take over their unfulfilled, monotonous and often miserable existences.
Auster’s writing is flawless – clean, clear and refined, meticulous in its descriptive clarity, essentially contrasting with the elusive stories it tells. I have no desire to write a proper review of The New York Trilogy, nor to examine its content too explicitly (for fear of ruining someone’s reading of it). What I am interested in is how it wears its Theory like a massive glimmering badge, blissfully pointing out what it is doing and what you should be looking for in order to ‘solve’ it, only to step back at the last minute; how despite its overt postmodern gameplaying, the most lingering thing I have taken from it is its more humanistic concerns. For example, when Peter Stillman, Jnr. is babbling away in his beautifully garbled English (“I am Peter Stillman. That is not my name. Thank you very much.”), one primarily begins to question why he is speaking this way and what this tells us about language via Theoretical concerns and abstract notions. Eventually the abuse that made him what he is is revealed and we are forced to confront the primacy of our intellectual, academic fascination with our moral disgust at what happened to him in the name of intellectual experimentation.
The questions I was left with upon finishing: what happens when what was becomes what is? Falls, losses – growth? Or nothing? What is an origin? Is an origin even anything? Who am I? What am I? Where am I? Ow. None of these questions are answered. As Auster’s characters fall away from certainties about themselves and who they are, mirroring language’s fall from full to empty, they realise “words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say”. They hide in themselves, stuck in their own individual isolations. “No one can cross the boundary into another – for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself”. But still they write, still they try and find truth, still they interpret, even though “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”, they know they can lose themselves in fiction, in stories, and that, even if it achieves or fixes nothing, is at least something, and it is no less ‘real’ than life itself.
Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017
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