Monday, December 5, 2011

Nabokafka With Paul Auster

I am reading Paul Auster's 1986 debut novel The New York Trilogy, which is actually a collection of three novellas (City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room) that bear some superficial resemblance to detective stories. This is one of those books I've read about but never read until now, and I am not sure exactly what I'd come to expect from Mr Auster but reviews routinely call the collection "genre-bending," "brilliant," "remarkable" and "innovative." And they're not; not quite, not if you've read Nabokov or Kafka or Borges.

These stories are about identity, in that the loss of the protagonist's personal identity is the primary dramatic action of the stories (I admit that I haven't read The Locked Room yet but I assume--possibly wrongly--that it generally follows the large-scale pattern of the other two stories). City of Glass concerns a writer, Daniel Quinn, who--under the pen name William Wilson (which is also the name of a character in an Edgar Allen Poe story)--writes books about a detective named Max Work ("max work" is one possible translation of the Latin "magnum opus," so this is, like, a funny joke). Quinn lives a solitary live, with no friends or direct contact with his publisher or agent or family (his wife and son died a few years before the story begins). He feels close to nobody except his fictional detective.

One evening Quinn gets a phone call asking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency. "There's no Paul Auster here," Quinn says. After a few more of these calls, Quinn decides to pretend to be Auster and he takes the case of Peter Stillman, whose father (also named Peter Stillman) is about to be released from prison. Stillman Jr is afraid Stillman Sr is going to kill him. So Quinn, telling himself to act like detective Max Work, pretends to be Auster and begins to spy on Stillman Sr in order to protect Stillman Jr. The case goes nowhere and nothing seems to have any meaning or purpose and Quinn becomes frustrated and obsessed and loses himself in the search for patterns in the behavior of others--which is of course the work of a detective. At his wit's end, Quinn finally goes to the apartment of Paul Auster, whose address Quinn finds in the phone book. Auster, of course, is not a detective. He's a writer, working for now on a book about Don Quixote and Cervantes' relationship to the work. Or possibly Quixote's relationship to the work, if Don Quixote is a true story as it claims itself to be. Who wrote Don Quixote, Cervantes or Quixote? Who is writing City of Glass? Paul Auster? "Paul Auster?" Who is the unnamed narrator who bursts into the narrative on the final page, the friend of "Paul Auster" who is apparently investigating the disappearance of Daniel Quinn? Et cetera. There's loads more stuff going on, and lots of pairing of character and action and image that may or may not supposedly mean something.

So Auster presents us with layer upon layer of identity (or perhaps not layers so much as colliding theories or a soup of commentary about theories), implying that the relationship between an author and his work (or a father and his son, or God and his creations, or a man and himself) is mysterious and possibly unknowable. Or so it might seem. On the surface.

Which is my problem with the two stories I've read of this trilogy so far: it's all merely taking place on the surface. It's all playing games with homonyms and names and duplication of actions, but there's no true exploration of identity other than the claim that your name is not your identity and that your name is just a word and the meanings of words change and therefore your identity itself is subject to change. Some shadow play about the nature of language also being the nature of reality, which is a nice image if you're a writer, but really there's not much of any depth here. There's not much beyond the surface games.

Granted, the surface is highly attractive and enjoyable. The stories remind me a lot of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which is a dandy play and a rollicking fine film was made of it but of course beneath all Stoppard's word games and references there isn't really anything there. It's pretty and clever and witty but hollow, and that's what I tend to feel about The New York Trilogy. It's a well-made and entertaining shiny hollow ball, but it's still hollow. Auster has crafted a dazzling collection of interesting gestures, and has borrowed some ties and shoes from the closets of Nabokov and Kafka and Borges, but he hasn't really said anything with all of it. Ghosts seems to comment upon City of Glass, but does it comment on the latter, or does it merely borrow images from it?

I'm enjoying the collection--hell, this morning I almost missed my stop because I was so caught up in the writing--but at the same time I feel let down because there's just not more to The New York Trilogy than the cleverness of the forms and allusions. Possibly I'm being unfair to Auster, though. The writer, I mean, not the detective. This is a better book than most and if I'd read it after The Man Who Was Thursday instead of after Antony and Cleopatra, I'd probably be gushing about it instead of dissecting it. I'm a difficult audience and I know it. I keep trying to come up with a positive sentiment with which to end this post, but I keep running into the difficulty that no matter what I want to say about The New York Trilogy (and really, I think it's worth reading so go read it), I am compelled to temper my praise and I realize that what I'm actually objecting to is not Mr Auster's novellas, but to the critical reception of those novellas. The problem isn't that Auster has failed in any way (he says himself, in his guise as Paul Auster, fictional novelist in City of Glass, that the primary duty of a novel is to entertain, and the primary goal of a novelist is to see how much he can get away with in the way of telling tales), but that the reviews I've read of the novel have been written by people who aren't familiar with the works from which Auster is deriving his stories; if you've never read Nabokov or Kafka or Borges, Auster can seem like a magician. If I hadn't read any of the reviews before reading the book, I'd be enjoying myself more than I am. I should rewrite this little essay and turn it into a review of reviews, but I won't because time is short and I am lazy.


  1. Your post falls into the "I had wondered about that" category. You are reinforcing my prejudices. But I will still read Auster someday to see for myself.

  2. The thing is (now that I'm halfway through the third story in the book), even though Auster isn't a genius and his stuff is more cleverly derivative than deep, I think I want to read more of his books after finishing The New York Trilogy. So we'll see if I do. I'm going to re-read Pale Fire next, and that might wipe all memory of Auster from my mind. Nabokov is strong meat.

  3. I should also write something about the writing of Paul Auster versus that of Lydia Davis, seeing as they used to be married and share parentage of "the son" Davis wrote so often about. I might not be the guy to write that, though. It looks like it would require hard thinking and I reserve my hardest thinking for my own crappy novels.