Book Review: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

When I studied abroad in Germany, I remember one day stepping into a bookshop (to check out the English section–my German was and still is quite bad) and getting curious to see what translated English authors they had. There were the usual suspects–DeLillo, Roth, McCarthy–and then they had nearly a shelf full of Paul Auster. I vaguely knew the name, but had no idea he was that big. In the years since then, I’ve read up on Auster (though never actually dipped into his books) and am not sure why he is not as popular at home as he is abroad.

“The New York Trilogy” is my first book by him. It’s not a novel but rather three novellas with some odd connections between them. And, despite the name, this is not an “American” book: Auster is after something deeper here. Imagine a more mainstream Beckett with less humor and you’ll have an idea what this book is like.

The first novella, “City of Glass,” is the story of a mystery writer getting mistaken for “Paul Auster,” a detective, and tracking down a recently freed religious lunatic. The next one, “Ghosts,” follows another detective, this one tasked with watching a strange man writing each day. But is he the watcher or the watched? The last one, “Locked In,” features a man detailing his life after his childhood friend disappears and turns out to have left a treasure trove of unpublished literary masterpieces behind him. A current of metafiction runs through all of them tying the works together and exploring books by other authors, like Nathaniel Hawthorne (the childhood friend in the final novella is named Fanshawe, the title of Hawthorne’s first (and later repudiated) work).

Auster’s prose is sparse, but not so much as to be artless. Apparently this has become a problem in his more recent books, but here there are no such troubles.

Those interested in real detective stories, with conclusions and reveals about who really did it, should look elsewhere. Auster is using the conventions of the genre, but…to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say do not go into this expecting any sort of typical narrative arc.

This isn’t a perfect book but it still is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary American fiction (or just contemporary fiction in general). Others have said that this is the best place to start with Auster, and while this is the only one of his I’ve read, it did make me want to check out his other works. Definitely recommended.

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Book Review: In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s oeuvre has an odd cumulative effect: the more books you read by him, the more you like him. The novels occupy special places in his body of work, complementing each other. But, other than a few highly acclaimed near-masterpieces (Missing Person, Dora Bruder, and Pedigree), all of these feel incomplete with taken alone, and sometimes even placing them within the context of his other novels is not enough to shake this feeling. Thankfully, In The Café Of Lost Youth belongs in the former category of near-masterpieces.

Those familiar with Modiano, however, might appreciate it more. It deals with all the typical Modiano tropes and themes: a dreamy recollection of years long past, Parisian locales, possible shady dealings, a detective, a mysterious young woman. If Modiano doesn’t click for you, it’s easy to get tired of the same old tricks, but here it works. He varies the formula just enough to make it new.

The novel begins with a typical Modiano narrator, a young student with a literary bent. He describes a café he begins to frequent, the regulars there, and an odd woman who attracts him. But 25 pages in, the point of view switches. There are four different narrators in total, including a passage narrated by the intriguing young woman. This allows Modiano to avoid a pitfall he frequently has trouble with. Too often he is too vague in his endings, not so much not answering questions readers have as not even providing the framework to know which questions to ask. By switching the point of view, he manages to give satisfying solutions to problems one narrator might not know which another reveals, while still evoking the mysterious atmosphere he is so famous for.

And, much like his other novels, this is incredibly short, with around 130 pages in my edition.

Though perhaps not as great as Missing Person or Dora Bruder, this is up there as one of the author’s best. Anyone—fans, those who tried a book and weren’t wowed, newcomers—are all recommended to take a look at this.