Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560
Three novels comprise The New York Trilogy. In the first, City of Glass, the reader is introduced to the protagonist Daniel Quinn.
The author creates the impression of a play or a film script by using dialogue and a narrator who sometimes speaks in voice-over; the specific language resembles that of classic film noir. The author also raises multiple questions about identity and about the reliability of any narrator the reader might subsequently encounter.
In discussing a telephone call, it is the narrator who identifies the person answering as Daniel Quinn, but then says that he is a writer who uses the pseudonym William Wilson—in part because of how he felt about a dead part of himself. However, in the narrator's words, a larger question of this character's identity is also raised. The caller, identified as Peter Stillman, asks for neither Quinn nor Wilson, but for someone with the author's name:
The telephone ringing in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not . . . .
[W]e know that [Daniel Quinn] wrote mystery novels, under the name of William Wilson . . . . A part of him had died, and he did not want it coming back to haunt him
. . .
PETER STILLMAN: . . . (Barely audible) Is this Paul Auster? I would like to speak to Mr. Paul Auster.
William Wilson is the name of a character whom Edgar Allan Poe created, who must face his own alter ego. Both the complicated question of identity and the legacy of Poe's character are exacerbated when Quinn encounters Stillman on the street and immediately sees his double. Is this another person, or Stillman’s doppelgänger whom Quinn imagines?:
Directly behind Stillman, . . . another man stopped, took a lighter out of his pocket, and lit a cigarette. His face was the exact twin of Stillman's. For a second Quinn thought it was an illusion, a kind of aura thrown off by the electro-magnetic currents in Stillman's body. But no, this other Stillman moved, breathed, blinked his eyes; his actions were clearly independent of the first Stillman.
In Ghosts, characters with these names recur and some continue to insist they are someone else or have different names. Colors are used throughout as last names. The reader will likely still wonder what the relationship is between the character Auster and the author himself:
"My real name is Peter Rabbit. In the winter I am Mr. White, in the summer I am Mr. Green. Think what you like of this. I say it of my own free will . . ." says Peter Stillman.
In The Locked Room, the reader again encounters the characters called Quinn, Auster, and Stillman, yet cannot be sure if their identities coincide or overlap. The unnamed narrator is searching for an author—who may be missing or dead—named Fanshaw, but this character may be a projection or a pseudonym for the narrator himself.
Auster, the author, provides no key that solves these riddles; he seems more intent on destabilizing the reader's understanding of the meaning of identity. The narrator states:
No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling. . . . 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.