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27th October
2009
written by Steph
Prepare to be astounded...

Prepare to be astounded...

After reading Nanny Returns in its entirety so that I could review it for the December issue of BookPage, I was in the mood for something a little less fluffy and a lot more substantial.  I guess as I’ve been working on bulking up my brain to deal with Classics and other meaty novels, I’ve kind of lost my tolerance for the chick lit genre.  I used to devour those books when I was a teenager, but now I find them fairly predictable with underwhelming writing.  I guess my recent trend has been to turn towards a new genre – specifically mysteries – when I am in hot pursuit of plot-driven stories, and feel the need to put my brain on cruise control (a plan which Dorothy L. Sayers soundly thwarted!). Well, for those of you who are similarly inclined, I warn you that The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster is anything but a passive read.  This was my first Auster and pretty much my mind was exploding and combusting throughout the entire thing, while I was frantically scrabbling about trying to pick up the pieces and get back on the narrative train.  I have pretty much decided that there’s no way for me to summarize any of the three novellas/short stories that make up this work, as a plot summary would fall so ridiculously short of capturing the heart of any of these pieces of fiction.   Also, it would probably be misleading to talk about the things that happen in these stories, because I kind of got the feeling that the plots (such as they were), were really just excuses for Auster to write about… non-plot things. Ostensibly they are detective stories, only they are driven by internal struggles and contemplations far more than they are by external factors.  Anything that happens in any of them does so merely to act as a catalayst to murky pontification on a myriad of subjects.  These are stories in which the things that happen are often confusing and befuddling, and maybe only important insofar as they illuminate and shed light on other things. Within The New York Trilogy, I would say Auster touches on topics of language, authors and authorship, identity, religion, solitude, and in the process manages to toss everything you thought you knew about fiction and narratives on its ear.  There is tons of metafiction going on here, which can be discombobulating, but also really illuminating.  This is the kind of book that while I read it, I wasn’t convinced that I fully got what was going on, but I still felt like my mind was expanding and that I was certainly gleaning something, however intangible and elusive it might be, from it. Words kind of escape me, because I just don’t know what to make of this book.  It made my head hurt, in both a good and a bad way.  The writing was deceptively simple to read, very accessible, but the ideas that were put forth were really challenging and I often felt like I was in over my head.  I just kept reading in the hope that everything would ultimately be revealed to me and ultimately made clear.  I’m not sure that ever really happened, but I do remember thinking that for a book that does a lot of things I normally do not like, I enjoyed it a good deal.  For instance, within the first 10 pages of the first story, City of Glass, Paul Auster is written into the story.  Normally, I hate that kind of stuff, I do not like it when authors break the fourth wall (which is just one of the many reasons I could not stand A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers), and yet I persevered and while I wouldn’t say that that little trick plays out in an immensely rewarding way (nor would I go so far as to claim that I understand the importance of Auster doing this), I will say that I got over the pretension involved and at the very least it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.  In fact, while it’s a tossup for me to say which of the three parts of The New York Trilogy I enjoyed most, I would say that that honor probably goes to City of Glass with The Locked Room running a close second. When I looked up Paul Auster after finishing The New York Trilogy, I found that his work is generally considered absurdist and postmodern.  I don’t know nearly enough about different writing movements to speak intelligently about how well Auster fits either of those bills in any credible way, but I will give you a simplistic breakdown based on my take.  According to the bastion of knowledge that is Wikipedia, absurdist fiction is not meant to be comical (though perhaps it can be), but rather it focuses on human nature at its essence as distilled through the lens of unusual/outlandish/extreme situations.  Based on that definition, I definitely see how Auster’s writing would meet that aim – many of his stories involve weird things happening, but as I said above, these events feel as though they are meant to be spotlighting something other than themselves.  Moreover, another portion of the absurdist fiction entry mentions that this type of fiction is often very “non-conformist” and can be difficult for newbie’s to grasp and grapple with.  Indeed.  As for the postmodernist slant… erm, well, why don’t you check out the entry for yourself and see if you can make heads or tails of it.  I think it involves skewering previous literary conventions and experimenting with narrative structures?  If so, then the answer to whether Auster belongs in this movement is clearly, “Hell Yes!”  While I was reading The New York Trilogy, I was at times strongly reminded of Jonathan Safran Foer, and also — and this is really weird, I realize — Roberto Bolaño.  Of course I am the last person who should draw parallels between Bolaño and anyone else, given that my copy of 2666 remains at a standstill partway through Part 4... and yet, I got this Bolaño-y vibe!  Honestly, I kind of feel that as inarticulate as I have been thus far about what exactly it is that Auster does in this book or what it is he achieves, at some point I felt like I had this flash of insight where I was like, “Ohhhhhh.  This is what Bolaño was trying to do in 2666!”  And look, I have no idea if that is a valid point to put forward or not, but it is a genuine insight thunderbolt I had while reading, and so I thought I would just put it out there.  Who knows - maybe this realization, as tenuous and illfounded as it may be, is what I needed to pull up my socks and finish the last 250 pages of 2666! So given this rambling pastiche of feelings and scattershot of thoughts that are nowhere near a comprehensive or useful review, what should you take away from all of this?  Well, first, this book is really divisive – if you check out its page on GoodReads, you will see that it has a 3.67 rating, and this is because people either REALLY LOVE it or REALLY HATE.  For this reason, I am extremely hesitant to recommend this book to anyone, because who knows which side of that divide you’ll fall on?  BUT, that muddy caveat aside, if I had guessed in advance (knowing what I now do about this book) where I would fall, I would have predicted I would hate this book.  And I really didn’t.  I didn’t understand it at least half of the time, but for whatever reason, being lost in Auster just wasn’t at all unpleasant.  It’s a book I know I will read again, because I need to.  It was difficult and impalpable, but it was also startling and was like having the hazy morning light of dawn focused into a penetrating pinpoint on my brain.  If you are prepared for a book that will challenge you as a reader and as a thinker, then I strongly suggest you give The New York Trilogy a try.  It may not be for you; you may find it pretentious and self-important, but… you might not.  And if you don’t, as I didn’t, then I think you’ll find it really rewarding and eyeopening.  I for one, am not at all upset that I have two more Auster novels waiting on the shelves, and I plan to find a whole lot more. Rating: 4.5 out of 5

16 Comments

  1. This has been on my wishlist for sometime and you have definitely intensified my want for the book. Metafiction, breaking down the fourth wall (I enjoy that) and likening Auster to Jonathan Safran Foer (whom I love) were all that you had to say.

    Your loss for words reminds me of mine after reading Summertime by JM Coetzee and it sounds as if there are similarities in style and comment.

  2. 10/27/2009

    I admit I’m one of those people who really dislike Paul Auster. I haven’t read this, but I read my first book by him last summer – and now I can’t even remember what it was called, something about omens? – and I just hated it. The writing was underwhelming, if not just plain bad. The book was pointless. It had no plot, the characters were unbelievable, and the whole thing was completely forgettable. I haven’t bothered with any Auster since. 🙁

  3. 10/27/2009

    Your reaction to this book reminds me a little bit of my reaction to The Deptford Trilogy. I think The New York Trilogy is probably much more of a cerebral and deep book, but some of the things you mention about it’s plot being a bit undefinable and it’s ideas being challenging seem similar. I have never read anything by Auster, and have never really felt the compulsion to, but I do have to admit that your review intrigues me. I really like that you say that it will challenge me as a reader and thinker, I think you sold me with that one sentence!

  4. 10/27/2009

    @ Claire: I think Foer is probably more whimsical and precocious than Auster (who is more austere, heh), but there is a moment in City of Glass where I had a very vivid “Foer” moment.

    And I think Coetzee is probably indescribable – the structure of Disgrace made it more amenable to synopsis, but how can you really capture that book in a review? I’m really looking forward to Summertime (which comes out in January on this side of the pond)!
     
    @ Amanda: I can understand why Auster wouldn’t work for you; in some sense, I’m surprised I liked him as much as I did! It sounds like whichever book you read was similar to this one in terms of plot and action (certainly I felt this one dragged at times, and I can completely see that others would find it boring), but I thought the writing was quite good, at least in this piece. It’s clear this isn’t an author for everyone!
     
    @ zibilee: This is definitely a cerebral book, and I think it really does challenge one’s normal concept of fiction, which makes it all the more mindbending. If this is storytelling, it’s a very different kind from what I’m accustomed to, but I found it really very interesting. Clearly not everyone will feel the same, and as I said, you have to be up for a challenging book, but I think it’s worth trying to see how you do!

  5. I haven’t read any Auster, but have had this on the wishlist for a while. I’m not sure I’ll like this book, as I think the style might put me off, but I want to give it a try. I’ll keep an eye out for a copy.

  6. Nadia
    10/28/2009

    Hiya! I read this book ages ago for my postmodern lit course in college and I absolutely loved it! Auster’s writing is brilliant, because while it is simple to read, it is quite challenging to comprehend. There is so much to unpack in these three stories that I feel as if I would need to re-read this book a few times in order to grasp its meaning. What I truly enjoyed from this book was The Locked Room – that one was my favorite story. The way it focused on language and words and identity truly captured my attention and had me wanting to understand what Auster was trying to get across with this story. So glad you enjoyed this book! I loved your review it! And I totally understand your need to sink your teeth into something a bit meatier than chick lit. I’ve been in the same boat lately too. I just finished The Lace Reader but didn’t exactly love it the way everyone else seemed to. I think my brain is calling our for something a bit more substantial. Anyhow, here’s to hoping that Auster got you back into reading some quality stuff! Cheers!

  7. 10/28/2009

    @ Jackie: I certainly agree with the Wikipedia entry that mentioned this type of fiction could be an acquired taste! Because it’s not really plot driven, it’s not going to capture and appeal to all readers, but I think it’s an interesting reading exercise nonetheless!
     
    @ Nadia: I’d love to hear more about other titles you read in your postmodern lit course! Clearly you could speak far better to the subject of what postmodern fiction aims to do!

    Actually, now that you mentioned it, The Locked Room was actually my second favorite in the collection! Ghosts was in my head when I wrote, but it was really my least favorite of the three… I’m going to go correct that right now!

  8. Kay
    10/28/2009

    I started reading this a few years ago (although in French), and I was really into it, until I lost the book (the whole tote bag in fact, with wallet AND book!). I had completely forgotten about it! I’ll add it to my TBR list so that I don’t again. I could use some non-fluff reading once the semester is over!

  9. 10/29/2009

    @ Kay: Although the language isn’t exactly tricky in this book, I do think that maybe it would be easier for non-native English speakers to read it in their mother tongue, as there is so much that gets complicated that I worry things might go over one’s head EVEN MORE if there was any doubt that they weren’t understanding the words correctly! And I do think this is a book that could be translated quite successfully, but please let me know how it goes for you if you ever do pick this one up again!

  10. 10/30/2009

    I do enjoy reading books on books, author, and language. I have no doubt that Paul Auster is a capable author; the reason I haven’t read this sooner is because I’m a bit dreadful of trilogy, in general. I feel obliged to read all three volumes.

  11. 10/30/2009

    I like your description of Auster in terms of his deceptively simple writing and complicated narrative or plot perspective – that is exactly how I’ve experienced him. The language appears too easy, but suddenly the book makes everything all complicated. I haven’t tried the New York Trilogy yet, but I plan to get around to it sometime.

  12. 10/30/2009

    @ Matt: I don’t think you really need to worry about the “trilogy” in this case, since all three volumes are actually novellas/short stories, so together they were just around 400 pages or so… nothing too lengthy, and they’re all house in the same book. Each part is easily read in the span of a day or two, so it’s not something you’ll need to spend weeks on, and in fact, it’s really beneficial to read them all in quick succession as it’s easier to pick up on the ties and echos between the three.
     
    @ verbivore: I am definitely interested to see how I respond to the rest of Auster’s works. In a way, I can’t imagine him doing the same thing as he’s done here in any other book, because as expansive as his scope is, I’m not sure how you top the inventiveness here. For some reason I expect his other books to be conventional, but I realize I probably shouldn’t!

  13. I have a Paul Auster book sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read (The Book of Illusions). I think I’ve been putting it off because it’s the kind of book I want to read and talk about so I get it. Reading this review, even for a different book, makes me think that plan was a good one. Someday 🙂

  14. 10/31/2009

    @ Kim: I think you’re right that you’ll feel the need to discuss Auster once you’ve read him. I wish I had someone in real life who I could talk about him with, but I’m going to rectify that by making Tony read this one! 😉 I look forward to hearing your thoughts on him.
     
    @ Elizabeth: I don’t think I “got” all of this one either… BUT I did pick up The Book of Illusions recently, and now I’m really excited to give it a go. I hope you do try the NY Trilogy, because I thought it was very good, and I think if you’ve liked some other Auster stuff then there’s a good chance you’ll like this one too!

  15. 10/30/2009

    I’ve only read one Auster – The Book of Illusions. It was SOOO amazing, and yet I am not entirely sure I “got” it. I haven’t read any of his other work, because I’m afraid they won’t live up to that one. Probably I should get over that and give this trilogy a try. =)

  16. 11/27/2009

    Steph – love your review. It is an impossible book to describe, but I love it – it’s one of my few desert island books. I re-read it recently, and now I have read a lot more of his work and know more about him I got so much more out of the NYT on that re-reading.

    Knowing that he spent years when younger in France and that he translates French poetry for instance, I could see something French in there but ‘Je ne sais quois’ – maybe that’s where his absurdist streak comes from …

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