Paul Auster & the Mystery of the Double

Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy is a novel written in the form of three novellas whose interconnections are tied together in the last one…more or less.

At least two of Auster’s central preoccupations are woven through all three parts. The first is the notion of the double, which in the form of detective stories in Auster’s hands becomes the self looking upon the self. The second is the notion of the enclosed self, the writing self, the self in a solipsistic state, or room, or relationship, where the double is simply an illusion. These two tropes show up in much of Auster’s work, and to good effect.

The New York Trilogy is too complex to summarize in any detail. As I have mentioned, it’s an ongoing detective story, fun to read, well-written, set in New York, that becomes, in its final movements a kind of romance in the technical literary sense, which is to say it is realistic but gauzily improbable, a thing of the heart more than the mind. Auster mentions Melville several times in the lead-up to this finale but earlier he has inserted Poe into the story, and it’s on the wings of Poe that he flies through the closing pages to the end. Poe also was drawn to detective stories, as we know, that concluded in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, for example, in a mystical, mysterious white-out, an ultimate plunge into the metaphysics of the self giving up on itself, solipsism becoming suicide. That’s what Auster is up to.

Some of the writing in The New York Trilogy is inspired. The first novella, City of Glass , contains an amazing account of how language came to be and came to separate mankind from reality. It also makes use of walking through New York as a kind of writing, which is clever. Ghosts, the second novella, captures the futility of observing anyone from outside. The third novella, The Locked Room,takes us inside the prison of self where the full corruptive potency of language, the self’s default means of understanding itself, wrecks havoc and destruction.

Auster’s irony both saves and to a degree defeats his art. The archetype of the private eye (private I) gets turned on its head. It possesses unlikely characters. It leads to other noir references in old movies and makes New York sometimes sepia, sometimes black and white, but never technicolor. But the same ironic toying defuses skillfully constructed tensions, backing Auster away from the desperate grandeur of a Poe or Melville.

The solidity of Auster’s style, its pace, its rhythms, its focus, its savviness, is probably the key ingredient in The New York Trilogy’s overall effectiveness–the satisfactions it provides a reader. If Auster does not even intend to land the kinds of crushing blows his predecessors specialized in–because he does not believe in them, probably, modern life being a smaller spiritual affair and getting smaller all the time–he still flirts convincingly with mystery, makes the unlikely and bizarre seem quotidian, and suggests that storytelling retains some of the magic of yore.

About Robert Earle

Robert Earle's new collection of short stories is called She Receives the Night (Vine Leaves Press). Over the years he has published more than 100 stories in print and online literary magazines. He also has published a nonfiction book about Iraq, Nights in the Pink Motel (Naval Institute Press) and a novel, The Way Home (DayBue). Earle was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania and has academic degrees from Princeton and Johns Hopkins. He spent 25 years in the Foreign Service and has lived in many parts of the US, Latin America, and Europe. Now he lives in Durham, North Carolina.
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