Sunday, May 8, 2011

New York Trilogy

The City of Glass

At first, I really enjoyed this novel. Daniel Quinn, a writer of cheap detective novels, gets a phone call in the middle of the night. The phone call is for Paul Auster (someone Quinn doesn’t know – how clever, no?), but it’s so intriguing, Quinn pretends he’s Auster and thus gets mixed up in the strange affair. The call was from Peter Stillman. Peter had been locked in a basement by his father for years; his father was trying to get him to speak the original language of god, or something like that. After a fire, Peter was discovered and Stillman Sr (also named Peter) went to prison. The deal with the phone call to Quinn/Auster was that Stillman Sr was getting out of prison, and Stillman Jr and wife thought he was going to come and kill Jr. Quinn was to pick up Sr’s trail at the train station and keep him from getting to Jr.

Quinn follows Sr all over New York, day after day, to no avail. Nothing happens. The guy just walks. Turns out, though, that he was spelling something on his walks that had to do with his thesis on language (total bull so I won’t elaborate). Quinn finally tries to talk to the guy, which he succeeds at doing, but Sr is a total nut job, and every time Quinn meets him, he gives him a different name and Sr. doesn’t seem to notice. Or does he notice and pretend not to? Turns out it doesn’t really matter.

And then one day Quinn loses him. Sr. doesn’t appear outside his hotel one morning, and it turns out he had checked out the night before. So Quinn is stuck. He looks up Auster in the phone book and goes to see him. Turns out he’s a writer and is a complete dead end. Quinn tries to call the Stillmans, but their line is constantly busy. For days. Finally (rather, you know, than going to see what is up), he sets himself outside the Stillman Jr apartment building and waits. After literally months, he runs out of money and so calls up Auster. Who tells him that when Quinn lost Sr, the guy had jumped into the Hudson and died. He goes back to his own apartment, to find all his stuff gone and someone else living there. So Quinn finally goes to see the Jr, and guess what – the apartment is completely vacant.

So what does he do? He strips naked and hangs out there for quite a long time (days? weeks? months?). Eventually Auster goes to find Quinn, and he isn’t there – just his notebook.

My favorite comedian, the late Mitch Hedberg, used to do the following bit:

You know when you go into a restaurant, and it gets busy and they start a waiting list, and they start calling out names, "DuFresnes, party of two." They say again, "DuFresnes, party of two." But then if no one answers, they'll just go to the next name, "Bush, party of three." Yeah, but what happened to the DuFresnes? No one seems to care. Who can eat at a time like this? People are missing! And they're hungry! That's a double whammy! "Bush, search party of three!" You can eat once you find the DuFresnes!
I kept thinking about that when I got to the last 30 pages or so, when Stillman Jr disappeared. Why was their line busy? Where did they go? And then Quinn disappears. Where did he go? The novel ends with the suggestion of, “well, he’s out there somewhere.” Yeah – naked. Clearly I was very disappointed in this.


This second story in the collection was why I bought the novel in the first place. Blue is a private detective, hired by White to trail Black. White pays for an apartment with a view of Black’s apartment, and Blue commences watching. But nothing really happens. He has no direction in terms of why he’s watching Black. The end was bizarre and like City of Glass, disappointing.

The Locked Room

The third and final part of the Trilogy centered around an unknown narrator (who is supposedly the author of the other two novels) who is contacted by his childhood friend’s wife when the friend disappears. He is tasked with going through the friend’s (Fanshawe) papers and novels to see if anything is publishable. It is, and in the meantime the narrator ends up marrying Fanshawe’s wife and adopting his son. But Fanshawe isn’t really dead, and the narrator knows it, and goes on a hunt to track him down. Names that appear in the other stories – Peter Stillman, Quinn – appear here as well, but I’m not sure if they are supposed to be the same people, or if they are just another play on names and mistaken or interchangeable identities. The writing of this section was markedly different (as in, not as good) from the previous sections, and was a little annoying. Unlike in The Piano Teacher, I found myself rolling eyes a few times.

I don’t know why I was so disappointed in these stories. My first reaction is that I didn’t like the ambiguity, the unanswered questions. But that can’t entirely be true. For years, I’ve been searching for novels that are like David Lynch’s films. In New York Trilogy, I recognize this long sought after novel. My central question, though, is how can I love love love Mulholland Drive and hate New York Trilogy when the central themes of identity and doppelgangers, puzzles and locked rooms or objects, etc. are so similar?

Reading some scholarly reports on New York Trilogy, (as well as some help from Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, which I started this weekend), I’m beginning to see my problem.

In Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous character (appropriately a sort of stand-in for Coetzee himself) is giving a lecture on realism, in which she states, (paraphrasing here) if I say there is a table in the hall, I mean there is a table in the hall. I think for some reason I’m stuck there in realism when reading. Perhaps it’s because I have problems processing information that I read, which is why I read so slowly – that’s the explanation that makes the most sense. It’s easy for me to see symbolism when I know it’s symbolism (The Metamorphosis for example), but less so when it’s subtle, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to take things at the author’s word or not. But then again, I loved The Trial. Where does that fit in, since it’s certainly more subtle than Gregor Samsa becoming a bug? I don’t know…this is an evolving theory on myself.

But in the end, I suppose, my reaction to both is the same. When I first saw Mulholland Drive, I couldn’t stop thinking about it to the point where I bought the movie and started to watch it over and over again. I didn’t expect to figure it out, but its puzzles wouldn’t leave me alone, and that feeling in Club Silencio when Diane/Betty finds the key in her purse still gives me the chills. In the same sense, I am pestered by this sense that I inherently didn’t get these stories – I know that there are layers there that I just didn’t delve into – perhaps because I was too distracted by the image of Quinn wandering New York naked. Maybe it comes down to expectations. I was not expecting a typical novel here, but I wasn’t expecting what New York Trilogy actually offered. So I wasn’t prepared for it, like I was with The Trial. I’m sure, in years to come, I will come back to this book, hopefully after I’ve read more Auster so I get all, or at least some of, the self referential stuff. This return won’t be any time soon. Unless, like Mulholland Drive, it really begins to bug me. In which case, I may be back reading it next week.

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