Matt Forney
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The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

NOTE: This article was originally published at In Mala Fide on February 29, 2012. I’m re-posting it here as the site is now defunct.

God, what an unreadable pile of shit.

I recall stumbling across a used copy of City of Glass when I was a kid and liking it for some inexplicable reason. I never bothered reading the two following installments in the trilogy, so when I saw them all bundled together in a single Kindle volume, I jumped for joy. That was an Amazon gift card well-spent.

As soon as I laid eyes on Luc Sante’s introduction, I knew I was in trouble:

Paul Auster has the key to the city. He has not, as far as I know, been presented with the literal object, traditionally an oversized five-pound gold-plated item, dispensed to visiting benefactors and favored natives on a dais in front of City Hall by a functionary in top hat and claw hammer coat, but I doubt he needs one of those. Auster’s key is like the key to dreams or the key to the highway. It is an alchemical passe-partout that allows him to see through walls and around corners, that permits him entry to corridors and substrata and sealed houses nobody else notices, as well as to a field of variegated phenomena once considered discrete, but whose coherence Auster has established. This territory is a realm within New York City, a current that runs along its streets, within its office buildings and apartment houses and helter-skelter through its parks—a force field charged by synchronicity and overlap, perhaps invisible but inarguably there, although it was never identified as such before Auster planted his flag.

Recognize this? It’s the overwrought diction of every “real” literary novel published in the past quarter-century. You’ve got the run-on sentences, the padding, and the highfalutin vocabulary. I mean, “passe-partout?” Do you even know what that means? I didn’t, so I looked it up; it’s French for “master key.” Now that’s how “real” writers write: using obscure terms to remind us all how smart they are and what dumbfucks we are in comparison. If a student handed this in to me for a grade, I’d strike out half of it with a red pen: “Too much filler. Needless repetition. Drop the David Fuckster Wallace act and write like a normal human being.” And this is only the first paragraph!

Since this is a trilogy, I’ll review each book on its own.

City of Glass

The lengthiest book in the series, it’s also the only one worth reading. The plot concerns Daniel Quinn, a hermit mystery novel author who gets embroiled in an actual detective case after being mistaken for Paul Auster. Oh yes, Auster is a character in his own novel. I smell postmodern hijinks!

The following night, Quinn was caught off guard. He had thought the incident was over and was not expecting the stranger to call again. As it happened, he was sitting on the toilet, in the act of expelling a turd, when the telephone rang. It was somewhat later than the previous night, perhaps ten or twelve minutes before one. Quinn had just reached the chapter that tells of Marco Polo’s journey from Peking to Amoy, and the book was open on his lap as he went about his business in the tiny bathroom. The ringing of the telephone came as a distinct irritation. To answer it promptly would mean getting up without wiping himself, and he was loath to walk across the apartment in that state. On the other hand, if he finished what he was doing at his normal speed, he would not make it to the phone in time. In spite of this, Quinn found himself reluctant to move. The telephone was not his favorite object, and more than once he had considered getting rid of his. What he disliked most of all was its tyranny. Not only did it have the power to interrupt him against his will, but inevitably he would give in to its command. This time, he decided to resist. By the third ring, his bowels were empty. By the fourth ring, he had succeeded in wiping himself. By the fifth ring, he had pulled up his pants, left the bathroom, and was walking calmly across the apartment. He answered the phone on the sixth ring, but there was no one at the other end. The caller had hung up.

You can pretty much guess how the rest of the book reads from this one paragraph; lots of exposition, adjective abuse, and page-long paragraphs. Still, unlike the following two books, City of Glass is interesting because it at least tries to conform to the structure of a narrative, with a discernible plot, dialogue and a character arc, detailing Quinn involving himself in the case to the point where he descends into gibbering insanity. At the very least, I was motivated to keep reading. You can spout all kinds of babble about how City of Glass is about breaking down the boundaries between truth and fiction and questioning the relationship between author and reader, but none of it matters. If you want a good, vaguely Coen-esque mystery story, City of Glass is a decent read.


I was plodding my way through this godawful novella (the shortest installment of the trilogy) trying not to fall asleep, when I came across this paragraph:

One night, therefore, Blue finally turns to his copy of Walden. The time has come, he says to himself, and if he doesn’t make an effort now, he knows that he never will. But the book is not a simple business. As Blue begins to read, he feels as though he is entering an alien world. Trudging through swamps and brambles, hoisting himself up gloomy screes and treacherous cliffs, he feels like a prisoner on a forced march, and his only thought is to escape. He is bored by Thoreau’s words and finds it difficult to concentrate. Whole chapters go by, and when he comes to the end of them he realizes that he has not retained a thing. Why would anyone want to go off and live alone in the woods? What’s all this about planting beans and not drinking coffee or eating meat? Why all these interminable descriptions of birds? Blue thought that he was going to get a story, or at least something like a story, but this is no more than blather, an endless harangue about nothing at all.

There’s nothing like a book that insults you for even bothering to read it. I almost think Auster threw this in to make fun of the lit-crit hacks who gush over him: “Ha ha, you idiots are actually READING this? I farted this crap out between watching reruns of Happy Days!” As for me, I just jabbed my Kindle’s next page button until I was at the end.

The plot of Ghosts is nearly identical to City of Glass: a private detective is assigned to tail some guy and eventually spirals into madness in the process. The main difference is that with Ghosts, Auster decided to dispense with such irrelevant distractions as “action” and “dialogue,” instead burying us in a nonstop monologue of the protagonist’s thoughts, which naturally wander all over the place and have nothing to do with the story. Even better, all of the characters are named after colors (e.g. Blue, Black, White, Gold), which combined with Auster’s squid-ink prose means you’ll need a flow chart to keep track of everything.

More often than not, however, Blue will bypass the bar and go to the movie theater several blocks away. With summer coming on now and the heat beginning to hover uncomfortably in his little room, it’s refreshing to be able to sit in the cool theater and watch the feature show. Blue is fond of the movies, not only for the stories they tell and the beautiful women he can see in them, but for the darkness of the theater itself, the way the pictures on the screen are somehow like the thoughts inside his head whenever he closes his eyes. He is more or less indifferent to the kinds of movies he sees, whether comedies or dramas, for example, or whether the film is shot in black and white or in color, but he has a particular weakness for movies about detectives, since there is a natural connection, and he is always gripped by these stories more than by others. During this period he sees a number of such movies and enjoys them all: Lady in the Lake, Fallen Angel, Dark Passage, Body and Soul, Ride the Pink Horse, Desperate, and so on. But for Blue there is one that stands out from the rest, and he likes it so much that he actually goes back the next night to see it again.

These individual paragraphs may not seem so bad, but imagine reading a hundred straight pages of this drivel.

The few short segments of Ghosts that aren’t Blue’s inane exposition are like oases in a desert, but even then Auster can’t resist the urge to fuck things up. Take this segment where Blue is confronted by his fiance (just about the only character who isn’t given a color for a name, but incessantly referred to as “the future Mrs. Blue”), who has understandably gotten sick of his undercover games and found another man:

You! she says to him. You!

No quotation marks. Who do you think you are, Cormac McCarthy? And of course, that’s the only dialogue in that section; “the ex-future Mrs. Blue’s” physical assault on Blue is written in more fucking exposition! Skip this.

The Locked Room

I made it all of two chapters into this before giving up. The Locked Room is written in the exact same dialogue-free expository style as Ghosts, and I was so burnt out from trying to make it through that one that I couldn’t take it anymore. The plot is at least different; it concerns an unnamed narrator’s search for his childhood friend Fanshawe.

Fanshawe had never had any regular work, she said, nothing that could be called a real job. Money didn’t mean much to him, and he tried to think about it as little as possible. In the years before he met Sophie, he had done all kinds of things—the stint in the merchant marine, working in a warehouse, tutoring, ghost writing, waiting on tables, painting apartments, hauling furniture for a moving company—but each job was temporary, and once he had earned enough to keep himself going for a few months, he would quit. When he and Sophie began living together, Fanshawe did not work at all. She had a job teaching music in a private school, and her salary could support them both. They had to be careful, of course, but there was always food on the table, and neither of them had any complaints.

Perhaps I’m just being unfair. Perhaps The Locked Room is actually a really good read and I was just so put off by Ghosts that all of Paul Auster’s writing is forever ruined for me. But I seriously fucking doubt it.

The New York Trilogy is a encapsulation of everything I hate about modern literature. It’s turgid, condescending, obtuse, and pointless. But the sad thing is that Luc Sante got it right in his intro: Paul Auster is the poet laureate of New York City, though not for the reasons he thinks. The New York Trilogy is the perfect book for the New York of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, a stultifying police state run by over-educated SWPLs who think All Things Considered is really deep and get the vapors whenever anyone says anything vaguely controversial. It’s perfect for the New York of the hipsters, pencil-necked dweebs from Seattle or Milwaukee thinking they’re going to be the next Thurston Moore or Lydia Lunch while they snack on artisan bread courtesy of their trust funds. It’s perfect for a New York defanged, declawed and stripped of everything that made it interesting and unique, made safe for underemployed Midwestern brats and bored Australian tourists. The New York everyone romanticizes—the New York of danger, intrigue and passion—is dead and buried.

And this neutered New York has produced a literati that spends all day sniffing its own farts. Jonathan Safran Foer, Colson Whitehead, Nicole Krauss, Gary Shteyngart, Jhumpa Lahiri, David Foster Wallace (actually wait, he’s dead; I’ve never derived so much joy from a suicide in my life), and all the rest: worthless hacks devoid of curiosity, humanity or talent. There’s more merit in a single Roosh Tweet than in the entire American literary establishment.

Sorry, but I went through four years of this horror, and I’ve got the diploma to prove it. I’d rather gargle battery acid than write another ten page paper analyzing Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and I’d never read any of this garbage in my free time. I would love nothing more than to see the mainstream publishing world collapse, along with the toxic, insular culture that gave birth to it. This is why I’m such a huge booster of self-made writers like Roosh, Frost and English Teacher X; for all their flaws, they understand what makes good writing, and they don’t water down their books to make some soccer mom-fearing suit happy. I refuse to support a world where pretentious puff words and navel-gazing is considered the stuff of great literature.

As for The New York Trilogy? The only reason I can see to buy this flaming turd is if you’re an adjunct English professor looking for new ways to torture your students. Alternately, give it to them as an example of how not to write. If there was a version of City of Glass available on its own on Kindle, I’d recommend you buy that instead.

And here’s the final joke. When I sat down to write this review, I was suddenly struck with a thought: “Is Paul Auster related to Lawr—. No, he can’t be. That would just be too convenient.” Ten seconds of research and my suspicions were confirmed:

Paul is the older cousin of conservative columnist Lawrence Auster.

It pains me to say this, but Paul should have taken some writing tips from his little cousin. Larry Auster is a senile old dork, but he can at least write. He’s not great, but he can make his points clearly and concisely, without feverishly masturbating all over the page.

Click here to buy The New York Trilogy.

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