“Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined…is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.”
Such are the words that open the first paragraph to City of Glass, the first novel of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. It’s a daunting tour de force: a philosophical piece that demands that readers reevaluate their idea of perception, of identity, and even notions of meaning itself. Summarising a plot out of this work seems counterproductive, as plot implies a final revelation: a denouement in which the artifices that have been laid out in the piece coalescence into an ultimate, answered question; indeed, a ‘meaning.’
In 1967, French philosopher Roland Barthes published his monumental treatise The Death of the Author. It, like Zarathustra, declared that the life-creator himself: the Author, was dead; though Barthes claims rather that instead of already dead, the Author needs to die. This is to say that the Author figure himself, so long the subject of critique and examination and criticism, must no longer be the focal entity of the piece; his existence detracts from the purity of the words themselves and invites convoluted meaning. One may imagine Joyce’s image of the Author-as-God, observing the work from afar, paring his nails; Barthes takes this image further, demands bellicosity—the Author is dead; what still remains in our memories must also be axed completely.
Barthes, borrowing from fellow French philosopher Jacques Lacan, insists that we all are the slaves to language—indeed our lives are governed entirely by it. Can any one person then, can any one Author, serve as language’s master? His existence is delusional: a faux-master of language upon whom we have placed far too much emphasis.
Recognizing that the piece of art must indeed have been written, Barthes follows the Death of the Author with the Existence of the writer: a sort of grunt laborer whose sole purpose seems to be the organizing of the elements of literature into the cohesive whole that constitutes an artwork. But he is worthy of little attention—anyone, after all, can be the writer—the supreme entity of a work of literature Barthes concludes, is the reader: the figure who, in the process of reading the words, gives them their manifold meanings, evokes them to life and, because he is not attempting mastery over them like the Author, claims his proper place as Lacan’s slave to language.
For most readers, Barthes and Lacan are anything but easy. The writings, particular’s Lacan’s, written in indulgent, highfalutin style, are the anarchists of linguistic and structural philosophy, unearthing our delusion and overthrowing our systems of meaning, value, and control. However, for the reader who wants to draw the most from the New York Trilogy, it may behoove him to understand the basic concepts of these writings; Barthes and Lacan provide, more than plot, the structure upon which Auster’s three novels rest.
In City of Glass, for example, the writer Daniel Quinn receives a call in the dead of the night. “Is this Paul Auster?” the voice on the other end of the phone asks. “I would like to speak to Mr. Paul Auster.” The simplicity of this passage combined with the brazen audacity of the Author to assert himself into his text, is cause enough to send the reader reeling. Excluding Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, never before had I read a work in which the veil that separates fiction from reality is so immediately torn.
Yet it’s not for his own self-inflation that Auster has invoked the Author so apparently. Daniel Quinn in his journey to discover both the caller and the reason for the call (brilliantly conjuring the detective genre, Auster’s City of Glass involves a murder-to-be, an intricate Tower of Babel plot, and the Kaspar Hauser-esque character Peter Stillman Jr., who, deprived of language and culture, having been locked alone in a room for the first years of his life, bastardizes words and the concept of one’s own identity in a brilliant monologue), soon realizes that the nature of one’s status as Author, or Creator, is a protean one; ever changeable, but ultimately meaningless. It would spoil nothing to say that Quinn’s denouement renders him insane and throws out of perspective the whole idea of creatorship.
But things are far from finished, even then. Ghosts, the second in the trilogy, evokes a setting much like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with one character obsessively watching the antics of another. Here is the plot, in Auster’s prose: “The case seems simple enough. White wants Blue to follow a man named Black and to keep an eye on him for as long as necessary.” Anything but simple, the case begins to question ideas of the self and ideas of identity. Blue becomes, in a sense, Barthes’s ‘reader;’ the man Black, Barthes’s ‘Author;’ for the relationship between the two is dependent on Blue’s observing the moves of Black: the reader reading the work of the Author and, by proxy of Barthes’s philosophy, giving it an existence.
This is all meant to show just how finely executed is Auster’s philosophical fiction. Even so, many readers, New Yorker book critic James Wood amongst them, have and will have problems with Auster’s work. For one, the philosophies of Barthes and Lacan remain inseparable from the Trilogy. There is no possible way to read Auster in terms of realism and plot; excluding Barthes and Lacan, his characters would be too manic and psychotic to function in any society but one of sheer concept. And, aside from the characters, the whole trajectory of the Trilogy is based upon Laconian principles of the ‘mirror stage’ and the ‘signifier,’ as well as upon Barthes’s treatise: The Death of the Author, leading to the origins of the writer, leading to the birth of the reader.
The writing too is intensely dry and rather ugly with lots of minutia and dialogue that, though at times extremely clever, begs for character; Auster’s women characters are treated atrociously, with nothing more to do than simper and drive the men forward.
Auster’s perspective, for all its faults, is nevertheless a rarity in literature. He makes no bones about blatantly revealing his work’s philosophical themes (another fault, according to Wood), yet by doing so, the philosophy is impossible to miss. One cannot walk away from the New York Trilogy without understanding some notion of Lacan or Barthes; this is a piece that demands a new perspective from its readers. It might be safe to say that, once one begins, one cannot walk away form the New York Trilogy, period.