The New York Trilogy Critical Evaluation
by Paul Auster

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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Paul Auster’s creative output includes numerous novels, screenplays, and translations, as well as several collections of poetry and creative nonfiction. He is an American writer who lived for many years as a translator in Paris, where he developed a literary friendship with the absurdist writer Samuel Beckett. Auster’s work has been seminal in the ways it has drawn together motifs from American literature and French philosophy, leading him to receive accolades on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Trilogy is his most critically acclaimed work, and City of Glass, the first novel in the trilogy, was adapted in 1994 into a highly successful graphic novel.

The New York Trilogy’s most prominent feature is its slipperiness, for it investigates slippages of meaning, genre, identity, and even fictionality. The three novels are easy to read but difficult to grasp; perhaps the only thing Auster scholars agree upon is that a coherent explanation of exactly what the novels mean would go against Auster’s project.

The New York Trilogy demands intertextual readings, since all three novels are redolent with explicit and implicit references to other literary works, especially from nineteenth century American fiction. Indeed, the title Ghosts may refer to the haunting of postmodern writing by the literary luminaries of the American Renaissance, all of whom are mentioned by name in Auster’s text. Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855, serial; revised, 1856) is mentioned, and Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson appear in anecdotes told by Black to Blue. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854) appears as a book that Blue watches Black read before reading it himself.

It is Nathaniel Hawthorne who features most prominently. In Ghosts, Black tells Blue the story of Wakefield, the title character of a Hawthorne short story who one day decides not to go home to his wife for reasons unknown even to himself and who lives nearby undetected for years before returning; the story ends as the door opens. Although “Wakefield” (1835) is most closely associated with Fanshawe, who leaves his own family in exactly the same way, it also adds depth to Blue’s difficulty in contacting the future Mrs. Blue, something Blue cannot explain even to himself.

Hawthorne, whose first novel was titled Fanshawe: A Tale (1828), was known for having spent years in a virtual “locked room” learning how to write, which connects him to characters from all three novels: to Peter Stillman, whose childhood is spent in a locked room; to Quinn, who spends time in Stillman’s locked room, writing; to Black and Blue, each in his locked room writing the story of the other; and to Fanshawe, who ends his life in the locked room in which he has filled his red notebook.

Edgar Allan Poe, often called the father of detective fiction, is also present in The New York Trilogy. Quinn mentions Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) when trying to find meaning in Stillman’s meanderings through the city. More subtle, Quinn’s pseudonym is William Wilson, the title character of a Poe story about a man haunted by his double. “William Wilson” (1839) resonates most obviously with the relationships between Blue and Black and between Fanshawe and the unnamed narrator. The presence of William Wilson’s name in City of Glass urges readers to seek Quinn’s double, possibly the elder Peter Stillman, who also loves to wander the streets of New York and who carries a red notebook identical to Quinn’s that Quinn thinks might contain the answers to the questions posed in his own red notebook. Quinn may have two doubles, though, as indicated by his tripartite understanding of his own identity as each of Daniel Quinn the man, William Wilson the writer, and Max Work the detective. Quinn’s other double may be doubled or even tripled: It is Paul Auster the author of The New York Trilogy and Paul Auster the character, who is also doubled as the absent detective and the writer.

(The entire section is 1,026 words.)