Review by Lydia Mark
The phone that rang in the corner of his boxy New York apartment brought Daniel Quinn back to life. As a somewhat retired writer, he had lived so long as a ghost that everybody had forgotten he was there until the telephone penetrated his solitary world. Usually, I find the “the ringing phone” a tired device used to anticipate and forebode mystery. Yet, in the first book of the trilogy, City of Glass, Paul Auster strips away the familiarity of this sort of beginning as Quinn does not seem remotely bothered by the phone; Daniel Quinn was a man with absolutely nothing to hide or expect.When he finally heard the voice on the other end, it was like a voice Quinn had never heard before, ‘mechanical and filled with feeling, hardly more than a whisper and yet perfectly audible’. It was asking for Paul Auster. Who is Paul Auster? Of course our award-winning novelist is Paul Auster. Elements like this make Auster’s trilogy intriguing because you enter the story in a state of confusion, which you really believe you can dispel if you just continue reading. As a feature in the ‘1001 books you must read before you die’ [www.goodreads.com], The New York Trilogy is a thoughtful comment on the genre of mystery and the panoply of novels written on this topic. In essence, Paul Auster’s novel is a look at the mystery about mysteries and the aspects of it that engage readers; the satisfaction from reading his novel comes as Auster transforms the reader into the investigator, making the reader active, in his take on the classic detective story.
With City of Glass I felt Auster evoked the image of a typical Hollywood detective drama, the film noir type popularized in the 1940s, with Quinn’s characterisation as the “cynical protagonist” gifted with a smart mouth and very little to lose, but as it continues Quinn is taken on a journey initiated by chance and the story becomes more than typical detective fiction. As he is not a P.I, but a writer of crime fiction, Quinn laughably takes on a trail and report case but instead of facts all he is left with are meaningless stories from various characters. What I think differentiates City of Glass from other detective stories and makes it so interesting is that it concentrates on the art of story itself, and not on whether the story does or is supposed to mean anything at all. Even when Quinn finally met the Paul Auster he had been trying to impersonate he was not the right guy, and definitely not the private investigator the voice of the phone mistook him to be. Instead Paul Auster was a writer who enveloped Quinn in yet another meaningless story and it is at this point you realise Quinn is not going to uncover any answers. Subsequently the reader is reminded of the narrator’s initial point that ‘The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.’ City of Glass and its illusive beginning constitute Auster’s novel as a postmodernist mystery as he plays with the conventions of a detective genre, challenging our expectations and encouraging the open-mindedness to explore the story.
However, I did not think Ghosts was as successful in encouraging the reader’s natural instinct to explore and discover. Ghosts is the second story about Blue who was asked by White to follow Black. While it does create the same sense of mystery as the first, I felt that all the events were thrown together deliberately to confuse the reader. Whereas, Auster so effortlessly intertwines the events of City of Glass together that you find yourself flipping back the pages to find the link that you missed and Ghosts, I think, lacked this subtlety. Blue was also set on an unfruitful trail and report case where his ending parallels Quinn’s. Blue ‘… stands up from his chair, puts on his hat, and walks through the door. And from this moment on, we know nothing.’
Evidently Auster is a fan of delayed gratification as I found myself racing to the last book, The Locked Room. With so many clues and so little answers the unnamed narrator aims to clear up the mystery that has gripped the first two books; we get a sense of the three stories as a trilogy as he tries to find the writer and friend that has “disappeared” and subsequently holds all the answers to The New York Trilogy. The Locked Room is frustratingly good as we expect it to answer all the questions posed in City of Glass and Ghosts, but in Auster fashion as he toys with the relationship between the story-teller and the listener he also challenges the authenticity of all three stories. As readers, can we really trust the “facts” presented to us by narrators?
Despite this, you harbour the feeling that you can find the mystery if you just look hard enough and this is when you realised you are entirely engulfed in Auster’s thrilling novel...