More opaque to ourselves and aware of our incoherence


"For all men are eggs, in a manner of speaking. We exist, but we have not yet achieved the form that is our destiny. We are pure potential, an example of the not-yet arrived. For man is a fallen creature--we know that from Genesis. Humpty Dumpty is also one. He falls from his wall, and no one can put him back together again--neither king, nor his horses, nor his men. But that is what we must all strive to do. It is our duty as human beings: to put the eggs back together again. For each of us is Humpty Dumpty. And to help him is to help ourselves."


I became intimately familiar with Paul Auster for the first time when I read his novella Travels in the Scriptorium back when I was eighteen and I had wasted the first two years of college skipping classes I don't like and opting to stay inside my dorm room instead just to read books and watch shows. Auster's book was one of these distractions I easily warmed up to, particularly when I found his narrative style to be surreal and at times even out-of-this-world while also still being in it. It's a refreshing paradox and his work was probably the very first time I read something not strictly reality-bound. Perhaps he may even be the author who fueled my interest in metaphysical stories after all. As soon as I finished The New York Trilogy, a book I had in my possession for seven years but had put off reading, I realized that it was a rather incomplete experience--and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Comprised of three short stories that have vague interrelations with one another, Paul Auster's The New Trilogy is quite the evasive, baffling yet wondrously insightful novel concerning the nature of stories, identification and pursuit for substantial meaning.

Disguised as a detective story, each tale is told in the perspective of protagonists who investigate cases that ended up revealing something crucial in themselves which would ultimately turn out to be inconsequential and unknowable after all. I supposed one can consider this as a meta story on detective fiction which are two things I absolutely love separately. Seeing them woven together in The New York Trilogy was a thrilling thing to see in theory. After all, the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction and procedural crime stories in general are encompassing, influencing some of the finest works in books, television and movies. Most of the popular shows on TV right now deal with a detective of some sort and his colleagues as they solve mysteries and crimes ranging from mistaken identities, theft, murder, serial killings, and even to the spookier stuff that may or may not have a touch of the macabre or the supernatural. The most recent and grandest of this had to be HBO's True Detective which I was completely obsessed with for a time, especially during its first season.

The reason I bring it up is because Paul Auster's novel strongly reminded me of True Detective's formula and approach. At first glance, each of the tales in this book was a detective story but as the plot evolves and the characters start to become more familiar with the readers, that's when we discover for ourselves that the mystery being solved here is the crisis and inner demons of the protagonist himself. The more involved he becomes in the case he is trying to solve, the more his own deeper struggles become unsolvable to him. He therefore found himself trying to unravel the mystery before him, hoping it would help him get some type of closure in his own life where there are some things he isn't allowed to comprehend at all. The stories then become rather convoluted, shockingly obtuse and unsatisfactory as soon as you get to the last page.


"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. For knowledge comes slowly, and when it comes, it is often at a great personal expense."

Much like the first season of True Detective, The New York trilogy is a collection of the fragmented consciousnesses of its protagonists who turn out to be the heart of the mystery that the plot itself is ironically the one trying to untangle for the readers. Each story then reads like a myth, one that divulges secrets in the dark but never truly shedding a light on each clue; a story that frustratingly conceals more than it reveals, leaving readers dumbfounded of the pieces scattered before them. I had the same kind of grueling experience while watching True Detective although since it was in visual form, I'm able to enjoy it and still be grounded on reality regarding the vital scenes I see for each episode. With the written form, the desired effect is much more personal and horrific; I simply do not know what to make out of the smallest details for the stories which I get the sense are important but become lost to me along the way. And that, I think, is Auster's aim in trying to construct a meta interpretation of detective stories in general. That is where the frustration and dissatisfaction lie.

The primary reason why we read books, especially works of fiction, is to understand ourselves and the world around us. We explore stories because they are supposed to reflect reality and interpreted in a creative, intellectual stimulating way. For Auster's The New York Trilogy, he purposefully wrote these three tales with the opposite of what the reader expects. In fact, most of the scenes in this novel are banal, utterly uneventful a and mercilessly puzzling. Man is considered to be the most mysterious being of all, but his life, when broken down into details, is nothing but a whimsical and tattered tapestry that doesn't always depict a complete picture. And aren't we all trying to be completeists in our lives; trying to define everything in terms that for us make sense but in the end may be just as incomprehensible as where we have started? I'm certainly more confused now after finishing this novel than I was when I began reading it days ago. It's an awful yet uplifting feeling all the same.

Paul Auster brilliantly captures this paradoxical relationship we have with stories in this passage:


"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 the 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."


In City of Glass, we meet the small-time fiction writer named Daniel Quinn who was mistaken as a detective but he was intrigued enough about the case laid before him that he placed it upon himself to solve it. He follows a man who in turn is an eccentric trying to decipher the nature of language, hoping to create a universal language everyone can speak, much like in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel until God struck down these humans and made them speak different languages. There is also the brief allusion to Don Cervantes' Don Quixote which Quinn contemplated about for a while, never knowing that--by the end of the story--he himself has become such a tragic character in the same vein as the delusional "knight" in Cervantes' dramatic tale. Quinn loses all sense of reality and identity the more he tried to unravel a mystery that is simply not for him to solve.

In Ghosts, we meet the detective Blue, a protégé of Brown, who is hired by a man named White to conduct surveillance on a man named Black. Blue performed his duty well, submitting his daily reports to White regarding Black's rather dull and uneventful activities. As the case consumes him, Blue becomes increasingly anxious and paranoid, theorizing that this was all a grand conspiracy between White and Black, and that he is the one being watched instead of the other way around. Upon confirming this, Blue then is faced with an impossible choice.

Finally, we have The Locked Room which is a staple of the genre where a supposedly unsolvable crime was committed inside seemingly locked room. It's worth noting that True Detective's third episode of the first season is named with the same title (and is one of my favorites). In this story, an unnamed protagonist was asked by the wife of his childhood friend to find the missing man in question. This man, Fanshawe, left his works of fiction in the confidence of the protagonist where he specifically requested for the protagonist himself to determined if his material is worth publishing. The protagonist had the stories published and then married Fanshawe's wife and adopted his son. But Fanshawe was not dead but remained adamant that he doesn't want to be found. 

Unable to satisfy his curiosity and eager to completely get a sense of closure from Fanshawe, the protagonist still pursued finding Fanshawe (in order to kill him) and discovered a rather bizarre thread of events that had something to do with the first story City of Glass but the reader and the character himself have no clue as to how all of this is connected...and perhaps we never have to know.


"Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. Even when he's there, he's not really there."
Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy is a dizzying experience filled with unanswered questions and equally unsolvable mysteries. His characters were just as painstakingly elusive, leaving us with only a sense of what has happened in our minds but never what has truly happened in objective reality. That's because there is no objective realism in the three stories and everything is open to interpretation and up for debate. In spite of this, I definitely enjoyed the topsy-turvy ride Auster provided for this novel, and I would recommend it while also cautioning readers to have a tremendous amount of suspension of belief because The New York Trilogy is one of the most nonsensical narratives you will ever come across. Still, it's an interesting journey worth the try.



RECOMMENDED: 8/10

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