Quite by chance, I saw a laudatory review of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy in The Times a couple of months ago, and it intrigued me enough to borrow the first novel in the series from the library – City of Glass. My ignorance is a wide and deep sea, and I knew nothing at all about Auster, and had no idea what to expect. Perhaps a gritty, ultra-realistic New York homicide, a kind of East Coast Marlowe? Or an elegant, sophisticated urban mystery, an urbane parody of the Grand Manner? Well, no. Not quite. Not at all, in fact.
City of Glass is a very unusual novel – I think it's a crime thriller, but labels seem to lose relevance when you talk about this work – and it left me by turns amused, intrigued, frustrated and surprised. I wasn’t left with any great sense of understanding achieved at the end, and I don’t (yet?) know if the irresolutions in my reading will be addressed in the two later novels, Ghosts and The Locked Room. The main character is Quinn, a moderately successful writer of crime novels, who begins to be plagued by telephone calls for one Paul Auster (!), apparently a successful detective. He points out that he is not that detective, and knows nothing of him, but he is eventually compelled to investigate, and does, in fact, become a detective just for this one case.
One very sad exchange - not relevant to the main story - occurs when he sees a woman in a railway station reading one of his books. In answer to his enquiry, she says "I've read better and I've read worse"; bad enough, but he persists, and asks why she carries on reading if she doesn't like it - probing the sore tooth - and she replies (oh heartbreak for any booklover):
"I don't know." The girl shrugged once again. "It passes the time, I guess. Anyway, it's no big deal. It's just a book."
At one level, he is clearly a very unsuccessful detective, because he becomes obsessed with the case, but loses the man he is supposed to be watching. Later, he resorts to living rough to watch over someone, and yet fails t save them, and ruins his own life and health as well. Or does he? To say that the ending is enigmatic is to understate the case to the point of absurdity – at no point in the book, do you know, really, who he is – who the real Auster (who he meets) is, or whether he has averted the disaster that you fear all through the book. The problem is a Boojum, and is terrifies and then fades away.
The writing is tremendous, and you keep reading, expecting clarity to break in at any moment, but it never does. You doubt your sanity, you think that maybe you’ve misunderstood the whole book, you worry over missed clues and wasted minutes. And I still don’t know what the book is about. But read it if you like a thriller or a crime story, and won’t mind being as puzzled at the end as you were in the middle!
Question: will I read the two follow-on novels? And will they explain what I have been reading in City of Glass?