Ghosts (The New York Trilogy, Volume 2) by Paul Auster

I have been slightly delayed in posting about this second volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy for no entirely discernible reason. I could say that the fact that I was on the wait list for the third volume, The Locked Room, at the library and, then, for no apparent reason, The Locked Room has disappeared from the library’s catalogue, dampened my enthusiasm. What to say about a trilogy when you only have the first two books? Then I have a dilemma. Do I buy the whole trilogy? My library has done this to me before. It has two of the three books in Coetzee’s semi-autobiography “trilogy”. I did buy the missing one that time. It’s Coetzee, after all. But Auster? I have not been blown away, though I probably should have been. Is Auster shelf-worthy?

Ghosts is a very interesting book. It was Sasha’s least favorite of the three. Perhaps that will ultimately prove to be so with me, but I sort of liked it. It felt less ephemeral than the last. The pages did not crumble to nothingness like a library hold. And, yet, it is weird.

First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown.

These are the characters. Blue is our guy, the one over whose shoulder and through whose eyes we peek. White hires Blue to watch Black. So, the second in the trilogy again has a private eye (this time a real detective) following and watching a subject. In the first book, it was not clear whether our man, Daniel Quinn, had followed the right man out of the train station. He could have spent most of the book watching a man unrelated to “the case”. Blue, though, is watching the right person we know. Only, we know less about why he is watching Black than we knew why Quinn was watching the elder Stillman. Blue watches Black and writes reports to White, hoping that he is focusing on the most relevant information.

The problem for Blue is that Black simply reads and writes and, occasionally, goes to get something to eat. Black’s routine is predictable and, seemingly, interminable.

For to watch someone read and write is in effect to do nothing. The only way for Blue to have a sense of what is happening is to be inside Black’s mind, to see what he is thinking, and that of course is impossible.

Blue had always been a man of action, so doing nothing is difficult for him.

He has never given much thought to the world inside him, and though he always knew it was there, it has remained an unknown quantity, unexplored and therefore dark, even to himself. He has moved rapidly along the surface of things for as long as he can remember, fixing his attention on these surfaces only in order to perceive them, sizing up one and then passing on the the next, and he has always taken pleasure in the world as such, asking no more of things than that they be there.

Blue has plenty of time, however, so he does start examining the world inside him. He discovers, among other things, stories.

More than just helping to pass the time, he discovers that making up stories can be a pleasure in itself…Murder plots, for instance, and kidnapping schemes for giant ransoms. As the days go on, Blue realizes there is no end to the stories he can tell. For Black is no more than a kind of blankness, a hole in the texture of things, and one story can fill this hole as well as any other.

Blue’s discovery of stories distracts him from his mission. He becomes more intrigued by the stories he imagines for Black than the activities of Black himself. Blue often pulls himself back from fantasy to the reality of his mission, but it becomes more and more difficult for him to separate the false from the true. His stories, he realizes, are more about him than they are about Black.

This isn’t the story of my life, after all, he says, I’m supposed to be writing about him, not myself.

This realization does not make things easier for him. He still struggles, discovers that he inserts himself into the story even when he does not mean to do so. Blue then becomes meticulous about writing down only facts, facts about Black, so that his reports become very difficult for him to write. His earlier surety in the world around him has been shaken, so he grasps on, again to the surface of the world, naming objects in his room in an attempt to tether himself to reality. But he has a problem, once you dive below the surface of things, you can swim as deep as you like without reaching the bottom.

Auster is writing, on the one hand, about storytelling and writing. On the other, he is writing about life. He does an excellent job weaving together the intersection of life and writing and how the one, in many ways, interferes with the other. One can either live or write about living. And, also, there is the problem of understanding another person, writer or otherwise. You can see what the person does, but to have true understanding, you need to know what they think. This is impossible, because, when you begin speculating what is in another’s mind, you cannot help but creep into the story you write for them.

We are not where we are, he finds, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out.

This is an excellently philosophical work. The story, too, is intriguing as fables and allegories should be. I have not doubt that writers will pass this book along to other writers for generations. And, too, will readers. Readers, after all, are haunted by the ghosts of writers. Readers, when they attempt to delve below the surface of a novel, into the mind of the author, they insert themselves and become hopelessly confused regarding what parts belong to the author and what parts are their own. Auster has made a beautifully postmodern statement and I look forward to the last of the series, whereever I find it. Sasha enjoyed it most, and I have heard the same from others.

Perhaps I have made no sense at all. Merely doubling myself as Auster’s characters do so frequently. I can only say with certainty that there is more to this installment of the trilogy than I can convey and, to be fair, more than it would be possible to convey. All the same, I’ve undoubtedly made a hash of it, so I encourage you to read it yourself and come back to explain the big and little things I have missed.

9 Responses to Ghosts (The New York Trilogy, Volume 2) by Paul Auster

  1. Justine says:

    A great review. I couldn’t finish the first in the trilogy so I gave up (highly unlike me) – should I attempt the second??

    • Kerry says:

      Justine,

      Thank you very much. I suppose it depends on (a) how far you made it through City of Glass before becoming too frustrated/disenchanted to continue, and (b) how much you would like to read one of the trilogy. Because, for me, the first only got really weird about 3/4 through and this one does not have the same sort of shift in its narrative, you probably can stick with this shorter book to the end if you made it over half way through the first. But, if you were not intrigued enough by the first one to finish, I doubt this one will grip you as much as other equally excellent titles would.

      Maybe you should wait until I finish the last installment (or, shudder, read someone else’s review of it), which is reputedly the best/most enjoyable, and see whether that one will reward your perseverance through this one? Just a thought.

      Whatever you decide, thanks very much for commenting!

  2. Sasha says:

    I think the main reason why I didn’t like this book so much was how Auster named his characters, and what he aimed to accomplish by doing so. His technical-ness often distances me more so than usual. I suppose that’s why I loved the last story best — it was him being clever, but it was as conventional a story as a postmodern Auster could pull off. It was fully about content, and less sacrificial of the form.

    Some questions, though — they come back as I read through your post:

    [1] I’m thinking how different my experience and opinions could have been if I hadn’t read the books one after the other. Then again, I do plan to reread this sometime, and I might just go that route.

    [2] With this trilogy — my copy was packaged as a whole book, with cover illustrations signalling the parts — I wonder what the “right” balance would be re reading the parts individually, and seeing them as part of a whole. Because I remember that I read them mindful that they were three books, even though many aspects and even characters echo between them.

    As to Auster being shelf-worthy: Yes, I think so. If only because we might be tempted to read him again. Or for the sake of visitors who’ll go, “Aaaah, Auster.”

    • Kerry says:

      I am definitely looking forward to the last book in the trilogy. The only real delay is my indecision regarding whether to buy it for the Kindle or the real live shelves. The shelves do off the “ooh, ahh” element, but I am leaning Kindle for the searchability.

      Interesting you are thinking of re-reading the trilogy at a more deliberate pace, as I have, while I intend to eventually re-read it, as you have, all in one go. I am not sure there is a “better” way, but I think your instincts are correct that it does alter one’s perception of both the individual parts and the whole.

      Thanks, again and again, for commiserating over this one with me. I don’t feel quite so vanquished as ready for another round. I think he’s dropping his left at crucial moments and I intend to capitalize…

  3. Justine says:

    Kerry, looking forward to hearing about it. I am afraid that I have ditched this one for greener pastures.

    • Kerry says:

      I can understand that decision. Sometimes, a book just doesn’t work for the reader and there are always green pastures on which to graze.

  4. Lija says:

    I’m currently looking forward to my first Auster experience (just bought the entire trilogy in a sweet retro-looking edition). Will have to head back here once I’ve read at least the first one.

    • Kerry says:

      Excellent. I hope you enjoy them. I plan to get to the final installment of the trilogy soon.

      I would be delighted if you swing by to compare your reaction to my own. And I will be checking your blog too. They are interesting books and I am always interested to hear another’s perspective.

  5. [...] The New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room (review coming soon)) – Paul Auster [...]

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