It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger's mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.
I'm not sure I could say that I enjoyed Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy (1987), exactly, although there were bits of it that I liked very much, and more that I admired. But overall it offers a prime example, I think, of a mismatch between book and reader, or a mis-timing: had I only read it five or ten years ago, etc. I was looking forward to experiencing Auster's work, which came highly recommended. As it is, however, these three short novels - City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1987) - unhappily combine my two biggest bugbears of recent years: drearily self-important mangst, and slightly stale postmodernism.
I'll take the latter first, for here the unfortunate mismatch lies. As discussed last month, I've grown increasingly impatient with the exploration of fictionality for its own sake; there seems to be a lot of wheel-reinvention going on, none of which comes close to the deftness of Borges or the infectious fun of Don Quixote. (I'm just so jaded, man.) Still, there is a huge amount of cleverness in the way Auster plays with the form and tropes of detective stories to unravel his protagonists' inner lives - or possible more accurately his protagonist's, since all three are essentially the same solipsistic and emotionally absent bundle of deadpan neuroses - and (more interestingly) the reality of their worlds.
In City of Glass, bereaved novelist Daniel Quinn avoids the numbness of his "posthumous life" by fictionalising himself, vanishing into the parallel existence offered by "the mask of his pseudonym", growing steadily more convinced that his invented detective is a real person ("He had, of course, long ago stopped thinking of himself as real. If he lived in the world at all, it was only at one remove, through the imaginary person of Max Work. His detective necessarily had to be real"), and ultimately adopting the identity of Paul Auster, the stranger for whom he keeps receiving phonecalls.
By a simple trick of the intelligence, a deft little twist of naming, he felt incomparably lighter and freer. At the same time, he knew it was all an illusion. But there was a certain comfort in that. He had not really lost himself, he was merely pretending, and he could return to being Quinn whenever he wished. The fact that there was now a purpose to his being Paul Auster - a purpose that was becoming more and more important to him - served as a kind of moral justification for the charade and absolved him of having to defend his lie. For imagining himself as Auster had become synonymous in his mind with doing good in the world.
As a result of embracing the name - and thus in some senses the life - of Auster, Quinn gets mixed up in an obscure mystery involving a man named Peter Stillman. Stillman, the source of the quotation that forms the title of this post, warns Quinn/Auster that Stillman is not his real name either. As a child, not-Stillman was kept locked in a darkened room for nine years by his father. Quinn tells himself that this is "something happening the world", not a story, but he nonetheless writes notes on the case in the same red notebooks he uses for his fiction. As Quinn becomes obsessed with the case, his grip on reality - inevitably - steadily loosens. At first, this is expressed in fairly minor things, like losing track of time:
It was strange, he thought, how quickly time had passed in the Stillman apartment. If his calculations were correct, he had been there for more than fourteen hours. Within himself, however, it felt as though his stay had lasted three or four hours at most. He shrugged at the discrepancy and said to himself, "I must learn to look at my watch more often."
Time's slipperiness expands to include whole days, making the progression of the calendar seem dependent on the success of Quinn's investigations ("This is New York, and tomorrow will be June third. If all goes well, the following day will be the fourth. But nothing is certain"); at length, even our apparently omniscient narrator cannot provide any objective reality, since he is dependent on Quinn's own notebooks to reconstruct the tale. Quinn thinks he sees two Stillmans, prompting him to "crave an amoeba's body", so that he can follow both at once. Finally, the instability comes to affect even the sanctuary of his home; after a prolonged period spent living rough, Quinn tries to go home but finds someone else living in his apartment. (Naturally, he therefore moves into the now dead Stillman's place and, holed up in the fateful darkened room, loses himself in writing. I rather liked this as an ending.)
The second part of the trilogy, Ghosts, also deals with a never-ending, purposeless case that ends up consuming the private detective investigating it. It's also where Auster - or at least his fictional alter-ego - started to lose me.
Ghosts steps up the surreality, and the postmodernism, by paring down setting and character to a minimum: much of the story takes place in one apartment, over a prolonged period of time; there are very few characters, and with one exception (if I remember rightly), all are named after colours in a way that effaces their individuality and makes them seem almost interchangeable. The opening line takes the laconic style of hardboiled fiction to parodic levels:
First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown.
Blue, the PI in question, spends much of the story carrying out desultory surveillance on the apartment of Black, at the behest of White. The task proves to be so opaque and unrewarding that Blue is driven to alleviate his boredom in a variety of ways: little by little, he starts to impose a narrative on Black's comings and goings, and to step out of the role of observer by interfering in the tale he is creating. Deconstructed to the point of meaninglessness, like a pointillist painting seen from about an inch away, it's all mordantly amusing, although it does tip over into ponderousness every so often:
Little does Blue know, of course, that the case will go on for years. But the present is no less dark than the past, and its mystery is equal to anything the future might hold. Such is the way of the world: one step at a time, one word and then the next. There are certain things that Blue cannot possibly know at this point. For knowledge comes slowly, and when it comes, it is often at great personal expense.
But in general it's all quite fun. What really began to try my patience during Ghosts, and even more so in The Locked Room, was the self-involved hysteria that creeps in beneath the laconic surface. Blue's essentially empty obsession, to which he could put an end at any time but for sheer inertia, gradually transforms into the silliest kind of oh! no! existential! crisis!
Then there are the times, following through with this thought, that Blue believes the only logical explanation is that Black is not one man but several. Two, three, four look-alikes who play the role of Black for Blue’s beneﬁt, each one putting in his allotted time and then going back to the comforts of hearth and home. But this is a thought too monstrous for Blue to contemplate for very long. Months go by, and at last he says to himself out loud: I can’t breathe anymore. This is the end. I’m dying.
And Blue's crisis is, of course, far too important to discuss with his girlfriend/fiancee, who doesn't even get her own colour, because of course she doesn't have an existence independent of her relationship to him:
Unfortunately, thoughts of the future Mrs. Blue occasionally disturb his growing peace of mind. Blue misses her more than ever, but he also senses somehow that things will never be the same again. Where this feeling comes from he cannot tell. But while he feels reasonably content whenever he conﬁnes his thoughts to Black, to his room, to the case he is working on, whenever the future Mrs. Blue enters his consciousness, he is seized by a kind of panic. All of a sudden, his calm turns to anguish, and he feels as though he is falling into some dark, cave-like place, with no hope of ﬁnding a way out. Nearly every day he has been tempted to pick up the phone and call her, thinking that perhaps a moment of real contact would break the spell. But the days pass, and still he doesn't call. This, too, is troubling to him, for he cannot remember a time in his life when he has been so reluctant to do a thing he so clearly wants to do. I'm changing, he says to himself. Little by little, I'm no longer the same.
Blue rebuilds his image of her in his mind - ending with her face, ladies and gentlemen - but makes no effort at all to actually speak to her. After all, why bother with a real woman - who might come between you and months of serious navel-gazing mangst! - when you can have an imaginary one instead.
The Locked Room picks up on many of the same notes and motifs - alienation, effaced identity, small locked rooms, red notebooks, the disinclination to speak to one's womenfolk - as well as one of the earlier characters (Quinn, who this time is referred to as a private detective without comment). Another alienated and essentially blank young man, this time narrating in the first person, starts investigating the disappearance of his friend Fanshawe, an unpublished writer. Despite the fact that Fanshawe is supposed to have been his bestest friend in all the world, the main thing the narrator can think about is the hotness of his (Fanshawe's) wife, Sophie. Well, he does also fret about becoming Fanshawe's literary executor - at the request of Fanshawe, made before his disappearance, Sophie has summoned the narrator to judge whether or not Fanshawe's work is any good - because he sees possibly destroying the work as synonymous with killing Fanshawe ("I had been given the power to obliterate, to steal a body from its grave and tear it to pieces").
Sophie, for her part, does the properly female thing of a) absorbing her grief about Fanshawe into her pregnancy ("When the tears stopped, however, she found herself without regrets. Fanshawe had been given to her for a number of years, she decided, and that was all. Now there was the child to think about, and nothing else really mattered"), and b) looking beautiful for the narrator, or at any rate acting as a blank slate onto which the narrator can project his fantasies about her thoughts and feelings:
As she walked into the restaurant and saw me sitting at the bar, she gave me a warm, complicitous smile, as though telling me she knew how beautiful she was, but at the same time commenting on the weirdness of the occasion—savoring it somehow, clearly alert to the outlandish implications of the moment. I told her that she was stunning, and she answered almost whimsically that this was her ﬁrst night out since Ben had been born—and that she had wanted to "look different".
And so on. It's all a bit tedious, and the story that develops is essentially a much more direct and ploddingly unsubtle retread of the themes of the first two parts. Through his work as Fanshawe's "spokesman", editing his unpublished writings into finished books, the narrator finds himself increasingly absorbed ("trapped") into Fanshawe's identity. His even discovers a letter from Fanshawe that urges him to marry Sophie. (He does.)
Like the protagonists of the previous stories, the narrator begins feeling very strange ("The sky was growing dark inside—that much was certain; the ground was trembling. [...] From one moment to the next, I seemed to be in a different place, to forget where I was"), but this time Auster cannot resist spelling out his meaning for us:
We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another - for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.
The combination of heightened emotional pitch and utterly deadpan prose that follows, as the narrator goes into the now-inevitable fugue state, doesn't quite lose its peculiar charm, but The Locked Room, unfortunately, never really builds upon the previous two instalments in the trilogy in any interesting or different ways. It is a recapitulation, a histrionic greatest hits, rather than a culmination - and it is this, I think, that left me with an overall feeling of disappointment with the trilogy, when there was so much about the earlier sections that I liked. Less than the sum of its parts.