Lost in New York vol I

Hi there, world…  again.

As you can see, there has been a bit of a hiatus in this blog. I did have a great review on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Random House, 2000) by Michael Chabon all lined up and ready to be published but for some reason which I have already forgotten about computer said no and the entire text vanished. I was overtaken by such sense of frustration that I simply lost interest in the whole blog. Plus, life happened as well.

But, enough of explanations already! I am back to books!

Having spent the last six months doing a communications internship in London, I have taken advantage of the wonderful selection of the city’s bookshops and consequently have a sweet pile of literary goodness waiting to be devoured, including some classic and not-so-well-known Russian / Eastern European books, which can be surprisingly difficult to find in my home country of Finland. I most recently finished Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, but before reviewing it I want to dedicate some words to City of Glass, which is the first part of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy.

City of Glass, published by Faber&Faber in 1985 but with a timeless feel, was for me one of those stories that creep up on you. Being familiar with Auster’s name but not his work, I was drawn to – as I often am in books – a great opening paragraph:

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.

If that doesn’t pique your interest I don’t know what does!

City of Glass tells the story of a writer of detective fiction called Quinn. Quinn’s uneventful existence is transformed when he receives a call for detective Paul Auster, and decides to play along and channel the hero of his own books by pretending that he is indeed detective Auster. He then gets involved in a strange case where a man called Peter Stillman, so abused as a child he is incapable of normal speech, fears for his life believing his father and abuser, also called Peter Stillman, has come to look for him in New York. To add a further layer to the story, Quinn meets the author Paul Auster and his family, whereas the story itself seems to have been recorded by someone else entirely.

The book is just as fascinating and strange as it sounds. I wasn’t compelled by Auster’s matter-of-fact style of writing at first, especially after having not so long ago read books such as Eleanor Catton’s wonderful The Luminaries and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, both of which are written in elaborate, poetic language. But the further I advanced in the story, the more interested I became in how Auster approaches the theme of identity. In his quest to understand the behaviour and motivations of the senior Peter Stillman and assuming the role of a detective, Quinn is drained of his own personality to the point where he finally almost becomes one with the little doorway where he is huddled monitoring the younger Peter Stillman’s home.

He was Paul Auster now, and with each step he took he tried to fit more comfortably into the strictures of that transformation. Auster was no more than a name to him, a husk without content. To be Auster meant being a man with no interior, no thoughts. And if there were no thoughts available to him, if his own inner life had been made inaccessible, then there was no place for him to retreat to.

There is an understated element of humour in Auster’s novel, which serves to soften the story which is, at the end, an incredibly harsh depiction of a man who voluntarily destroys himself.

His ambition was to eat as little as possible, and in this way stave off hunger. In the best of all worlds, he might have been able to approach absolute zero, but he did not want to be overly ambitious in his present circumstances.

Having of late read books with particularly unpleasant main characters – Highsmith‘s The Talented Mr RipleyGillian Flynn‘s Gone Girl and Tartt‘s The Goldfinch (and yes, I consider Theo Decker to be a very unpleasant protagonist!) – it was a nice change to be able to follow Quinn with sympathy. All in all, City of Glass is a very evocative and thought-provoking read. As the blurb of The New York Trilogy suggests, Auster’s other two stories will also be “variations on the classical detective story”. I look forward to finding out how they differ from City of Glass.


City of Glass reviews

The New York Times
The Guardian


nyt23f-2-webPaul Auster (1947-) is an American author and director whose writing blends absurdism, existentialism, crime fiction, and the search for identity and personal meaning in works such as The New York Trilogy (1987), Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), The Book of Illusions (2002), and The Brooklyn Follies (2005).

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Auster)