I finished reading his latest book Invisible a week or so ago. It is a great novel and displays many of his favourite tricks and his characteristic verve in the writing. I also re-read his first novel The New York Trilogy – a linked set of metafiction detective novellas, which I found as dazzling now as when I first read it about twenty years ago. I’ve been musing about what to say about these books for a while, but I am finding it very difficult indeed to describe their brilliance adequately and to give synopses without spoilers, so I am going to be deliberately vague about plot and concentrate on other aspects.
Invisible is one of his multi-layered best – I loved it. The key character is a young man, Adam, who has a defining moment in his life as a student which has huge consequences, and he looks back on what happened that spring in his memoirs. Written in four parts, we start off in the first person with Adam himself telling his story, then move onto a more impersonal second person narrative. The story is then taken over in the third person by a friend from Adam’s student days, and in the final part Adam is not physically present, but the consequences of what happened back then still resonate.
One of Auster’s favourite devices is to embed a book within a book and using an author as a central character as he does here. There is always a strong psychological element to his books and in this novel, truth and memory are intertwined in the memoir together with some shocking events and tender moments – but which are real and which imagined? (Book supplied courtesy of Faber, 9/10).
Now to The New York Trilogy. Originally published separately in the mid-1980s, the three novellas that make up Auster’s first fiction: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, take the traditional gumshoe detective from the golden age of noir and make that rôle into something new. New York itself also has a starring part – all Edward Hopper-ish, dark shadows yet with bright lights, a place full of strangers and lonely people.
In the first installment, a detective writer gets a phone call asking for a detective – in the spur of the moment, he decides to take the job, and all too soon becomes obsessed by it.
‘It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not…’
In Ghosts, a detective is hired to carry out surveillance on another man, and all the characters are named after colours (did Tarantino get the idea for Res Dogs from this I wonder?). In the third, a writer disappears, and his wife contacts one of his friends who always wanted to be a writer but ended up a critic, and asks him to help publish her husband’s works.
There are many similarities across the three novellas. Questions of identity, the writer’s life – writer’s block and overcoming it and getting published, the dangers of obsession, are all given a psychological twist so that you can never work out quite where it’s going – there’s a strong element of ‘who watches the watchers’, and Auster even puts himself into the first novella. I had the added bonus of having treated myself to the new Folio Society edition with wonderfully evocative illustrations by Tom Burns which enhanced my re-read immensely (10/10).
I read a collection of Auster’s ‘true stories’ published in The Red Notebook alongside the NYT in which a red notebook is a recurring motif. These little essays are a mixture of stories about writing and Auster himself, and also things that have happened to his friends. In particular they are full of mostly happy coincidences and lucky events – coincidence is another of Auster’s fascinations – although those coincidences in his books are often twisted by the choice of path taken and its consequences. However, getting to the point, one of the tales told how Auster got a phonecall at home from someone asking for a detective – he says he wondered what would have happened should he have said yes – and bingo – there was the inspiration for City of Light.
I have enjoyed everything of Auster’s that I’ve read so far – I still have a few to go, but Invisible or The New York Trilogy would be great places to start. I also found that upon re-reading the NYT I got whole new levels of understanding and enjoyment out of it, and it is one of my desert island books.