Book Review: ‘The New York Trilogy’ by Paul Auster

“In the end, each life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose.”

― Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy

What irritates Paul Auster most is when people think that The New York Trilogy is a detective story. I guess I was guilty of assuming it was so too. Although mystery novel can be said as its genre, the book is, however, more than that. A detective story is used here as a form to tell stories which theme is ‘learning to live with ambiguity’. I guess more than the theme, it can also serve as a note in advance for the readers. Each of the three stories has an open-ended ending, which can be quite frustrating. But the point here is not about the result, not about whodunnit. It is about the act of detecting which slowly leads to the quest of finding an identity of oneself, the main characters. How well do you know yourself? How do you see yourself? These might be simple questions but for our characters, a big consequence follows in finding the answer.

Auster decided that detective story would be the form in his novel because of the inspiration he had from a wrong call he had received. The wrong call was the start of this curious book’s first story.

The Wrong Call: Quinn, a writer of a crime book, once a poet, struggled with life after his wife and son had died. One evening, he received a wrong call asking for ‘Paul Auster Detective Agency’. At first, Quinn said that the caller was mistaken but after some thoughts, he decided that he would pose as Paul Auster the detective and take any cases offered to him. A request came from a man named Peter Stillman, a strange rich guy with a beautiful wife. Stillman believes that his father, who had just been released from prison, would come after him and kill him. Our ‘detective’ then started following Stillman senior and in the process, he started to lose himself.

Ghost: A detective, Blue, received a commission work to shadow a man named Black. His client, Mr White, gave him an apartment right across Black’s apartment and paid him a satisfactory amount of fee every month. At first, Blue was excited with the easy job, but days, weeks, and months have gone by but he did not find anything particularly suspicious about Black. Still, he wrote his report regularly. However, after months, Blue started to lose his patience and decided to make a move. He disguised himself as a homeless man and started talking to Black. This made him suspicious of Mr White’s intention and identity. The ending is quite unpredictable.

The Locked Room: My favourite story from all three. Our narrator is a writer/journalist who lacks creativity. One day, he got a call from a woman who said that she was his best friend’s wife. The writer hadn’t seen his childhood friend, Fanshawe, for decades but apparently, Fanshawe talked highly of him to his wife. Fanshawe had gone missing for months and the last thing he said to his wife was to give the writer all his writings. The writer was surprised that Fanshawe still wrote and promised his wife to look at the writings. Turned out, Fanshawe was a genius. His novels and poems were soon published and he was said to be the American genius. The writer, the wife, and Fanshawe’s little son receive royalty that guarantees them a comfortable life. And soon, our writer replaced Fanshawe’s place as a husband and a father. Just when everything went well, the writer received a letter from Fanshawe, telling him that he was still alive.

The New York Trilogy is an experimental postmodern fiction which breaks many boundaries of conventional novels. Through the journeys of our ‘detectives’, we will read about their existentialism quest in finding their identity. Often, we feel trapped, just like our characters, in a maze of existentialism. We can feel their frustration and despair, and how deep they were lost in their own mind, which is quite claustrophobic experience. Each story starts with an intriguing start: a wrong phone call, a mysterious case, a missing best friend, and these keep me flipping the pages for more. However, the simple intriguing plot opens new layers each time, forcing the characters to fall into a deeper abyss. The open-ended endings do not bother me at all. In fact, they make this book perfect.

Definitely a must-read.

“We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end, we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another – for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.”


This edition is part of Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition series. Published by Penguin, 2006.

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