In a way the story about the parallel world and the war is just a metaphor for feelings of disorientation and grief. You realise that after that story is snuffed out as the author lies in the dark talking to his granddaughter this really is a book about loss and perhaps if anything it is slightly over complicated.
The start makes it feel like some author meets creation Vonnegut number and has a slight feel of De Lillo but then the second part, divided only in terms of my reading and not formally, is more of a personal tale of coming to terms with loss.
As the main character retells the story of his life and the love for his wife with all of his mistakes and the granddaughter tells of her grief for a love killed in Iraq the idea of what happens to those that are left behind is the big one Auster is grappling with.
Just as with Incredible Loud and extremely Close follows the story of someone pulling the loose ends of a tragedy in the death of a father in 9/11 together this is similar.
After the twin towers fell the sense of loss, anger, disorientation and grief can only be imagined. In the second half of this book Auster manages to get close but perhaps The Falling Man edges it.
A review will follow soon…
In some ways reading this makes you think of Kurt Vonnegut purely in the idea that an author might co-exist in the same world as their creation. But that’s where the similarities end.
The mention of 9/11 and the war in Iraq makes you think of the war on terror and there are themes of war and death but also about the breakdown of relationships. As August Brill lies away in the dark at night and writes his stories of an American civil war in his head he is conscious of being below his daughter and granddaughter who have moved in with him following ones divorce and the others bereavement.
He starts to sketch out a world where the US has fallen apart because of the refusal by some states to back the president. The states unravel and a war begins. Caught in the middle is a New York magician Owen Brick who finds himself in a world where the twin towers have not fallen but where he is expected to travel between two parallel worlds to stop the war by killing Brill.
The New York Trilogy is one of those books that could best be described as patchy. Split into three parts in some ways it could best be described as a modern attempt to lovingly take apart and reassemble the detective fiction genre.
The first story City of Glass tells of the descent into madness of a writer who willingly takes on the role of a private investigator for a bit of excitement. But he is quickly out of his depth and ends up losing the case, the client and his own mind. Everyone seems to be leading double lives with the main character Daniel Quinn using false names and identities.
Even the name of the private detective, Paul Auster, is a red herring because he confesses to not being anything of the sort. Then there is the subject of the case Peter Stillman who has apparently been a victim of parental abuse by a father who is just about to come out of prison. His release and apparent death threats are what necessitates the appointment of Quinn to watch the father. He watches him and engages him in disguised conversation but reveals so much that the old man commits suicide. But the focus then switches back to Stillman. Who is he and what does he want? Living as a tramp Quinn only manages to enter the apartment where he was first hired months after it has been vacated and there is slowly loses touch with reality.
Language, identity and what is or is not reality are all key here. A great deal of time is spent expounding on about the tower of Babel and the power of language. That even risks losing the reader as it appears that after weeks of effort it is actually an irrelevance.
But the theme of uncertainty, with the detective themselves being open to being a victim, is carried on in the second story Ghosts. Here a private eye named Blue who has been trained by Brown is hired by White to watch Black. The use of names as colours only goes so far and before long that device is easily forgotten. Instead what becomes clear is that the lives of Blue and Black are becoming completely entangled and White is the dangerous presence.
Blue loses himself in Black’s life – a pretty boring life – and eventually the detective breaks the chains and ends up taking his frustration out on Black. Again themes of identity, secrecy and the potential for madness are all here.
Finally the most modern feeling story, with Ghosts having a 1950s feel, the Locked Room is a play on a classic detective story device. Usually the dead body lies behind the locked room and the detective spends the rest of the story trying to establish who killed the victim. Here however the figure behind the locked room is alive and potentially has the power to destroy the life of the main character. Two school friends lose touch and one is surprised to find his old friend was a literary talent. Helping bring his work to market he also falls in love and marries his friend’s wife.
Everyone assumes the old school friend Fanshawe is dead but a meeting talking through a locked door reveals he is alive and quite conscious of the decisions he has made to isolate himself.
Again you feel this is about identity with the author handing over his life to a ‘better man’ as he looks to concentrate on some sort of penance for past actions.
After closing the last page you don’t feel a sense of satisfaction. If anything you wonder if themes like the red notebook that pops up in the stories and other echoes are there to trip you up. The feeling of being stupid is not a pleasant one and although certain sections did entertain the overall experience is a mixed one.
Of all the stories this one feels most up-to-date in terms of its timing. But for vast tracts the focus is on the past.
Again the character of a novelist is asked to help with the literary estate of an old friend, Fanshawe. He steps into his old friend’s shoes in more ways than one marrying his wife and living off the proceeds of the fortunes created by his old school friend’s novels.
But he alone knows that his old school friend is not dead and faced with the commission of his biography sets out to try and rid himself of the feelings of being haunted by Fanshawe.
He heads out to track him down, despite being threatened with death for doing so, and in the process almost loses himself. His marriage falls apart and his own identity is on the brink of folding into the path taken by Fanshawe when they finally meet. The fact that the old school friend talks through a locked door makes him the body in the locked room.
Throughout the three stories you sense the deep knowledge and appreciation that Auster has for the detective fiction genre. But he leaves you feeling slightly frustrated as the stories are not completed with some great linking together. There are images replicated, like the red notebook and the loss of identity, but there are limits to how far the stories are linked.
In the end this is a book that has the power to make you think about identity and language and about how those that don’t know who they are anymore find it dangerously easy to lose themselves.
A review will follow soon…
The story changes tack in the sense of timing. You can imagine the first story being set in the 1980s but this second section is clearly earlier. The subject is again a detective but in a clever play on words the main characters are White, Black and Blue.
White hires Blue to watch Black and send back weekly reports. All Black seems to do is sit in an apartment opposite Blue’s building and read and write. For the detective usually used to tracking down criminals and working on dynamic cases the ongoing assignment becomes frustrating.
He follows Black, gets to know his routine and starts to become changed by the experience with his appreciation of language increasing. That makes it not only more difficult for him to think and write in a limited police-speak type way for the purpose of his reports but also starts to open his eyes to beauty.
With a poetical yearning developing in Blue he starts to appreciate the local landscape. But his instinct and training remain intact and eventually he tires of the watching and as he meets his ex girlfriend and realises that his former way of life has ended forever he becomes slightly resentful.
Forcing the issue through disguised conversations with Black and attempted meetings with White he realises that he has been used and resorts to the sort of violence that you thought he had perhaps left behind.
You can see the links in terms of language, identity and the question of truth but because the stories felt disconnected by time it is with some trepidation that you turn to section three…
This book feels as if it has been around for a lot longer than it has. No doubt that is helped by the recent decision by Faber to reproduce the cover in a 1930s type design. But even inside the stories feel from the past.
Split into three stories the first is a strange and disturbing tale of a writer who answers a wrong call and decides to pretend to be the private detective that the caller is phoning for.
A tale of identity and language unfolds with the main character of Quinn losing his bearings completely as he struggles to solve the case. As he is hired to protect a man from his father after the former survived being locked up as a child by the later who was determined to see what language a child would produce if left sealed off from society.
The expectation is that left alone the vocabulary would come from communion with God and be the language of the Lord, the language probably spoken before the Tower of Babel incident.
Anyway Quinn follows, talks to and then loses the father who seems to be obsessed with the Tower of Babel concept. But Paul Auster introduces a character named after himself as the connection between Quinn and the private detective. The question of identity is constant.
Ultimately Quinn not only loses all track of those who had hired him but also of himself. His apartment, belongings and even name seem to disappear by the end. We are left with a man who has written his thoughts about the case and his predicament down in a red notebook and that is all that seems to remain.
Part II tomorrow…