Book Review: The New York Trilogy

These are my reviews/thoughts/musings of books that I have read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on Paul Auster’s 1987 ‘The New York Trilogy’.

Before I moved to New York, I found books set in New York and about New York sort of annoying. It seemed like so much media focused on NYC that other major American cities (*cough cough*Chicago*cough*) often got ignored. Since living here and learning the lay of the land and it’s neighborhoods, though, there’s good reason for it: the city’s personality creates a perfect backdrop for a variety of stories, especially and particularly detective stories, which have been a lifelong favorite of mine.

The stories in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy are all detective stories, and the city plays a huge role in the plot of each, blending seamlessly into the plots in a way that few cities could. All the stories are surrealist noir, turned on its head and pointing a mirror directly back at the reader. As each begins, you feel the familiarity of the detective story–and then each one turns you for a loop and leaves you confused and searching for answers, with various degrees of effectiveness. In each, an assignment undertaken by our lead character consumes their lives until they’re swallowed whole, and in each, the reader is left unsettled and uncomfortable. It is a deconstruction of the ratiocinative detective story–we are left trying to use logic to figure these stories out, and the book leaves you grasping at straws and gasping for air. 

City of Glass, the first story of the trilogy, was the strongest and most affecting. It follows a writer who assumes the personality of a private investigator and launches himself headfirst into a strange case. This story is unquestionably brilliant, provoking and has a powerful affect for days, as it takes a cut and dried detective story and turns it into a philosophical exploration of the power of language, existence and madness. This book apparently has been turned into a well-lauded graphic novel, and though I’m not much of a graphic novel/comics guy, I think I’ll take a look and experience the story from that vantage point.

As mentioned earlier, New York plays a major role in this story–the subject our main character follows walks around the city in patterns spelling out letters, and as our character descends into madness, Auster describes a walk he takes around Manhattan in vivid detail block by block, landmark to landmark, to the point that I was taking a map out and drawing a line to follow his footsteps, before realizing that Auster had done it–he had drawn me into the case. My map drawing skills maybe weren’t the best, but I didn’t find answers there, and maybe I wasn’t supposed to.

I can’t recommend this one highly enough–if you only read one story from this trilogy, make this the one.

The next two stories are not quite as strong–Ghosts, in which an experienced private detective named Blue loses everything (including his mind) during a mysterious assignment in Brooklyn tracking a man named Black for a client named White, is still compelling and seems to have something to say, though it lacks the punch that City of Glass delivers. The final story, The Locked Room, about a man who publishes a childhood friend’s work following his disappearance, marries his wife and assumes his identity, continues the themes of obsession, investigation and insanity. It is, however, the least memorable of the three stories, and the least New York as well (though it is set in NYC, it is the first time in the trilogy that any action of significance happens outside the city).

While there are peaks and valleys to the trilogy as a whole, they are great companion pieces to each other and together make for a compelling and quick read. New Yorkers may respond to it a different way than others, since the city is itself a character of sorts, but folks who have never been to the city can dive in here with minimal adverse affects to the experience. Make sure you’re in the right state of mind before picking up–nothing written within these pages is straightforward, and your mind will get a workout in–but in the end this is a standout piece of fiction.

Rating: ****



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