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Paul Auster — The New York Trilogy

Forgive me for writing on this all in one go instead of devoting a post to each book; my copy is a “collected.” I originally bought this book because a professor I liked recommended it to me in my freshman year, and I read it and remember enjoying it. Then I had to read it again for a class and remember enjoying it less so. Last year, I suggested that my boyfriend read it, because he had also heard of it and needed a book to read. It took him the better part of the year to finally give up and return it to me, leaving the last book unread, informing me that it was ridiculous, that he hated it, and it had been a waste of his time. I remember very clearly being vaguely offended, because I had remembered liking it so the first time… and so when it came time for this re-read I was interested to see how it had held up.

The answer? In short: UGH, HE WAS RIGHT. I was so frustrated reading this book I can’t even explain it. And it’s even worse because I know Auster is capable of more than the self-indulgent crap that spans these three short novels. I know it because sometimes when he really gets it right, he can write. See this as an example:

New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within. The world was outside of him, around him, before him, and the speed with which it kept changing made it impossible for him to dwell on any one thing for very long. Motion was of the essence, the act of putting one foot in front of the other and allowing himself to follow the drift of his own body. By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal, and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere.

Or even this:

It was a physical sensation, an imprint of the past that had been left in his body, and he had no control over it. These moments came less often now, and for the most part it seemed as though things had begun to change for him. He no longer wished to be dead. At the same time, it cannot be said that he was glad to be alive. But at least he did not resent it. He was alive, and the stubbornness of this fact had little by little begun to fascinate him—as if he had managed to outlive himself, as if he were somehow living a posthumous life.

Really lovely little bits of writing, right? Well, it’s unfortunate, because the rest of the novel is mostly I’m-so-clever type grandstanding, and I don’t mean that lightly. It’s just… well. To compare. The plots of most of these novels are somewhat ridiculous existential detective stories. In the first volume, City of Glass, a writer mistaken for a private detective named Paul Auster (you see?) is hired to protect a man who was kept in the dark by his father for years, and eventually meets the author, Paul Auster (see??), while attempting to solve the mystery and getting more and more wrapped up in his own insanity. And then there’s the second book, Ghosts, where Blue, a student of Brown, has been hired to spy on Black (ugh, Auster) who lives across the street, or The Locked Room where a man up and disappears, leaving behind unfinished writings and his unfinished life. It’s not that I don’t appreciate an existential detective story; obviously I enjoyed reading Monsieur Pain, but for some reason as I’ve aged I just don’t have the tolerance for Auster anymore… so I’m sorry, Alvaro, you tried your best. And I’m sorry, Boyfriend, for doubting you when you threw it aside.

This one is getting demoted from apartment bookshelf to parents’ house bookshelf, I’m afraid.

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