Saturday, 15 October 2011

Tales of the City

I must admit that I judged Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy (1985-1986) by its cover. It was the look and feel of the book that persuaded me to buy it. The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition seduced me with its cover art by renowned cartoonist and artist Art Spiegelman. The image of the three books on the carpet, a limp hand clutching a fountain pen, blood spots and some unknown person standing over the scene intrigued me. Spiegelman also did full colour title page for each of the novels inside, which neatly divide the text, and a map of New York’s Upper West Side on the back cover. But it wasn’t just the cover art that seduced me: the cover flaps, the embossing of the author’s name, and corrugated paper stock provide a tactile delight, which remind me why I will never fully convert to e-books.

Beyond my superficial reasons for purchase I also wanted to read my first Paul Auster. His name appeared many times on must-read book lists (for example, “The 1001 books you must read before you die”) so I thought it was time to explore his work. Having read The New York Trilogy, however, I will not be in a hurry to read any more Auster.

The first part of the trilogy, City of Glass, tells the story of Quinn, a mystery writer who poses as a detective in a case that he hopes will provide material for his novels. As he becomes more embedded in the case, Quinn spends months on a stakeout in the streets with his obsession leading to his ruin.  In Ghosts a private eye named Blue is hired by White to investigate a man named Black on Orange Street (the colour wheel is exhausted by the end of the story). The final story, The Locked Room, centres on a writer asked to help locate his childhood friend who has gone missing. I thought this was the best tale in the trilogy because it was linear and had more fully-formed characters. I particularly liked the description of the author’s childhood with his friend.

I must admit I am not sure what to make of this book as Auster plays with the reader’s mind with the interlinked stories and recurring themes. Using the devices of metafiction to raise questions of truth and identity, this is a postmodern detective tale. While there were parts I thoroughly enjoyed, my overall feeling is ambivalence. Perhaps I liked the idea of the book, rather than the book itself. Reading reviews of this book online it appears that many readers found deeper meanings that I did not. Regardless, my curiosity about Auster has been satiated and if nothing else I have a beautiful book that looks lovely on my bookcase!