The New York Trilogy

by Paul Auster
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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster is a series of three detective novels: City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986), and The Locked Room (1986). The stories are not independent of one another and have since been published together in one volume. All three novels are set in New York at different time periods.

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City of Glass is about a lonely and unhappy thirty-five-year-old widower named Daniel Quinn. He is a writer of detective stories, writing under the pseudonym William Wilson. When he is not writing, Quinn reads mystery novels and walks the streets of New York. Quinn receives a series of phone calls from someone wanting to hire a detective named Paul Auster. After the third phone call, Quinn decides to take on the identity of the detective and arranges to meet the person who has called him. When he arrives at the address, a beautiful woman answers the door and takes Quinn through to talk to her husband, Peter Stillman. Stillman is a young man, blond, and he tells his story to Quinn without pause. The story lasts for hours rather than minutes. As a child, Stillman was the subject of a cruel experiment by his father, and now that his father is being released from prison, he wants Quinn to watch him and ensure he doesn’t come back for him. Quinn takes on the case and spends weeks following Stillman’s father. The story ends with Quinn himself becoming the subject of an experiment and another man, a writer, now looking for Quinn.

Ghosts is about a man named Blue. Blue is a detective. We see through his eyes. Blue is a student of a man named Brown and is hired by a man named White to watch over a man named Black. As readers, we don’t know why Blue has been hired to watch Black, only that he sends reports back to White. Black, though, does nothing but stay in the apartment, reading and writing. As Blue is a man of action, he becomes bored and begins to make up stories and fantasize about Black. He starts to struggle to separate fantasy from reality—first fantasy about Black, but then about himself, too.

Both Quinn and Peter Stillman make appearances in the final story of the trilogy, The Locked Room. In this story, the main character, “the writer,” is contacted by a woman named Sophie, who is the wife of the writer’s childhood friend Fanshawe. She says that her husband has been missing for six months and that her husband had wanted the writer to become the executor of his manuscript to see if it was suitable for publishing. As a writer of articles but a failed novelist, the writer is concerned about this task.

How could I be expected to take on such a responsibility—to stand in judgment of a man and say whether his life had been worth living? He admired what I did, Sophie said; he was proud of me, and he felt that I had it in me to do something great.

Reading the manuscript, the writer realizes that Fanshawe has achieved greatness with this work. The manuscript is published to great acclaim. Sophie and the writer fall in love and marry, and the writer adopts Fanshawe’s son. But Fanshawe haunts their life, and the writer decides that the only way to move on with their lives is to find him. This search, however, becomes an obsession for the writer, ending in a nervous breakdown in Paris. Finally, however, he is told by his wife that they have to believe Fanshawe is dead in order for their marriage to survive. Fanshawe finally contacts the writer and gives him a notebook, but the writer gets rid of it.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820

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 is the “Mrs. Saavedra” that the reader learns is waiting for Peter Stillman after he first talks to Quinn, as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) plays a major role in the text. There is also “Paul Auster,” the character—later in the book, one learns that “Paul Auster” is not a detective at all but a writer with a wife named Siri and a son named Daniel. Daniel Quinn and Auster’s son joke about having the same name, just as Quinn marvels early on that Peter Stillman, the son of the man Quinn is hired to track, has the same name as his dead son. The story is all about shifting identities, about characters who melt and mold into one another.

Such dynamics carry into the subsequent volumes, Ghosts and The Locked Room. In Ghosts, a detective named Blue, a student of Brown, is hired by White to follow a man named Black. Coincidentally, the story begins in Brooklyn on February 3, 1947, the day that Auster was born in Newark. What, then, to make of this? Though one knows that Ghosts is a twist on the stories told in City of Glass and The Locked Room, one gets the feeling that Auster began the story with a simple question: “What might have been happening in New York on the day that I was born, and how is it connected to my life?” Auster, like Blue, who reads True Detective magazine religiously, is concerned with the possibilities of chance, with the way that lives weave and intersect. He knows that the present is equally as mysterious as the past and the future.

In The Locked Room, a nameless narrator is called by the wife of his childhood best friend, Fanshawe. (The name Fanshawe is also that of the title character of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first book, Fanshawe: A Tale [1828].) Fanshawe’s wife, Sophie, tells the narrator that her husband has been missing for more than six months, that she presumes he is dead, and that he left instructions that, if anything should ever happen to him, the narrator should become his literary executor. Fanshawe, it turns out, was a reclusive genius, leaving behind a closet full of extraordinary novels, poems, and plays. The narrator accepts the task and, slowly, moves into Fanshawe’s life: He publishes his work, marries his wife, adopts his son, and begins work on a biography of him.

Again, Auster is examining the frailty of human existence—how, almost by chance, one can move into an altogether different life and become another person. For Auster, detective work—following ambiguous clues and lousy leads—is the stuff of the human story: the search for character, for identity, and, ultimately, for death. Auster is also concerned with why and how people create art, and nowhere does he meditate on this subject more poignantly than in The Locked Room. The true artist, Auster knows, must submit to necessity.

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