I think I either almost read or tried to read this when I was younger — college aged or so — and for whatever reason didn’t. I kind of wished I had stuck with it, because I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more then. That’s not to say that a) I feel like I have missed out all these years or b) that I happen to like it now.
I didn’t exactly like this book, and maybe don’t feel like I have anything to say about the different parts of the series to really indicate why, so much as I felt like I didn’t have anything here to really sink my teeth into.
So here’s what these books are. It’s the first three novels published by Paul Auster, who is probably most well-known for these books, but also for Brooklyn Follies — which I have read and enjoyed, Moon Palace, Leviathan, 4321, and In the Country of Last Things. It’s three interlocking, but not necessarily sequential novels that are kinds of existential mystery novels, metafictional mystery novels, and somewhat oblique mystery novels. Each one is a mystery and follows someone pursuing that mystery, but each one is also doubling, authorship, language, meta-narratives, and other similar things. I would also say they each feel very 1980s metafictional.
City of Glass
In this opening book, we meet Quinn, a novelists who writes under a pseudonym as well as a kind of lapsed poet. We will find out later that his name is Daniel Quinn, which raises the specter of his being a kind of stand in for the writer Daniel Quinn known for the novel Ishmael. Anyway, Quinn is approached by a woman who is looking to solve a mystery about her husband, an academic (sort of American history/American studies) who disappeared for a long period of time and now is come back kind of in a wild state. The thing is, Mrs. Stillwell has not approached the writer Daniel Quinn or his pseudonym, but a man she believes to be Paul Auster, maybe a detective or maybe the writer Paul Auster. So the mystery then goes from here.
In Ghosts, a man known as Blue (not his real name) is asked by a man named White to follow a man named Black. He is asked to observe and report, as it goes, and each week as he sits down to write he fills up voluminous pages with this report. And each week he receives in the mail a check for his services. This whole plan is meant to last years. But it’s not that long before it becomes clear to Blue that Black is likely onto him, and also clear that someone seems to be following him.
There’s a sense of in-borne mystery in the style and narration of this one and it feels, as the book jacket tells us, quite claustrophobic as a result. It’s the shortest of the three and maybe the most interesting too.
The Locked Room
In this book our narrator is brought in to be a kind of literary executor for a dead writer named Fanshaw. Fanshaw had left a wife and baby in the world along with tons of unpublished writing. The narrator takes the writing and sees to getting it published. It becomes a kind of literary smash, which he reminds us does not guarantee clear and obvious financial success. And so, as happens in any kind of closed off subculture like the publishing world, where financial gain is limited, the power of fame and the spotlight become the more attractive elements here.
I would hate to call these novel style over substance, because that implies a kind of emptiness to their cores, and I am not convinced that best explains what is going on here or what it feels like to read these novels. But there is a kind of hollowness here. Each of the three novels feels a lot like shadowplay in their own distinct ways. In the first and third novels, the identity of the protagonist is in complete flux throughout. In the first one, he’s called by three different names, one name entirely false, and one name misapplied, but he also begins to inhabit those names in ways that shift his identity with each changing version of himself. In the third novel, for one thing, we do not know who the narrator is in any kind of definitive way. But as he works to publish the works of Fanshaw he becomes something like a transparent version of Fanshaw overlaid himself. The shadowplay of the middle book is different because the entire world is built this way, so while the identity of the main characters are in question, the entire reality of the world we are looking at is also in question.