Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The New York Trilogy comprises Auster’s first three novels, City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986), and The Locked Room (1986). It introduces the themes that Auster would continue to explore in novels for years to come. Drawing on the style of hard-boiled detective fiction and the imagery of film noir, Auster sets these three intricate mysteries in New York in different time periods. Essentially, each of these three books tells the same story, as the nameless narrator confesses at the end of The Locked Room, related at different stages of the narrator’s awareness. They are tales about the nature of identity and language and the role that coincidence and chance plays in forming the human character. Auster uses concise language to reveal the pieces of a complicated textual puzzle. Never perplexing just for the sake of it, Auster remains focused and accessible throughout.

The first of these books, City of Glass, was published in 1985 by Sun and Moon Press, a small Los Angeles company, after being rejected by other publishers seventeen times over the course of two years. It is the story of Daniel Quinn, a mystery novelist who writes a series of detective novels about a private eye named Max Work, under the pseudonym William Wilson. One day Quinn, devastated by the death of his wife and son, receives a call from someone looking for Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency. Ultimately, Quinn, anxious and bored, assumes Auster’s identity and pretends to be a private detective. He accepts the case and begins trailing a man named Stillman, a linguist who had been confined to a mental institution for locking up his son alone in a room for nine years.

It is immediately apparent how much fun Auster is having with names: “William Wilson” is taken from an Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, and it is also the real name of New York Mets center fielder “Mookie” Wilson. Daniel Quinn’s initials are not insignificant, nor...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

The Novels

The New York Trilogy consists of three short novels, City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, which tell similar stories. In City of Glass, Daniel Quinn is a New York poet who turns to writing detective novels under the name William Wilson, the first of many multiple identities in the trilogy. He strongly identifies with his hero, Max Work, and wishes he could be more like the detective.

An opportunity presents itself when Quinn receives a series of mysterious telephone calls asking for Paul Auster. Quinn finally claims to be Auster, a private detective, and is hired by the caller, Peter Stillman, a psychologically fragile young man who, as a child, was locked alone in a room for nine years. Peter Stillman, Sr., a scholar obsessed with the origins of language, had hoped to discover what words would evolve in a child reared in isolation. The father is to be released from his resulting confinement, and the younger Stillman suspects that his life is in danger.

Quinn follows the older Stillman all over Manhattan, taking notes about their walks, and discovers that the routes are spelling out the phrase “Tower of Babel,” the subject of Stillman’s research. After tracking down and confronting the real Auster, who turns out to be another writer, not a detective, Quinn goes into physical and psychological decline.

The protagonist of Ghosts is a 1940’s detective named Blue, who...

(The entire section is 509 words.)