city symphony


New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to thin, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within.

Paul Auster is not a person i know for taking a stance on something. High postmodernism is over by the time the trilogy is composed; it’s no longer a question of who is in or out. Auster was also at Columbia during the heyday of the Weather Underground and the domestic terrorism against the Vietnam war, and even then he was not willing to board “the great ship of solidarity” as he called it in HAND TO MOUTH, only to bear witness. (And with melancholy, since i remember reading in that memoir that an acquaintance of his was killed in a premature detonation.) He’s not “in” or “out” of pomo writing practice, but the Trilogy is three variations on the same idea: what happens when the protagonist is body slammed into the postmodern event.

In CITY OF GLASS the event comes in the form of Peter Stillman, who locked his son alone in a room to see what language the kid (also named Peter Stillman) would form for himself. His speech as an adult is self-contradicting effluence: “I am Peter Stillman. I say this of my own free will. Yes. That is not my real name. No. Of course, my mind is not as it should be. But nothing can be done about that. No. About that. No, no. Not anymore.”

Auster’s narration, focusing on Quinn, a writer of detective novels who is now passing himself off as a real private eye named Paul Auster, is or at least seems to be fraught with significance. Every detail, every observation in the Stillman home seems to resonate. At the same time, in the postmodern event everything is without significance, stable identity is a fallacy (and Quinn begins rebounding thru multiple identities), clues are nonsense, language inadequate.

Quinn studies Stillman Senior’s dissertation on the Fall and the Tower of Babel:

Adam’s one task in the Garden had been to invent language, to give each creature and thing its name. In that state of innocence, his tongue had gone straight to the quick of the world. His words had not been merely appended to the things he saw, they had revealed their essences, had literally brought them to life. A thing and its name were interchangeable. After the fall, this was no longer true. Names became detached from things; words devolved into a collection of arbitrary signs; language had been severed from God. The story of the Garden, therefore, records not only the fall of man, but the fall of language.

When Quinn, after tailing Stillman for a while and picking up wild clues which could be something or nothing, interrogates the guy three different times as three different people. He doesn’t make disguises, but Stillman either doesn’t remember him, or is totally accepting of the same man having multiple names (character names and objects like the red notebook recur throughout the trilogy.)

In GHOSTS Blue is hired by White to spy on Black, but the case seems to be nonexistent as it unfolds.

The day comes for him to write his first report. Blue is an old hand at such compositions and has never had any trouble with them. His method is to stick to outward facts, describing events as though each word tallied exactly with the thing described, and to question the matter no further. Words are transparent for him, great windows that stand between him and the world, and until now they have never impeded his view, have never even seemed to be there. Oh, there are moments when the glass gets a trifle smudged and Blue has to polish it in one spot or another, but once he finds the right word, everything clears up. Drawing on the entries he has made previously in his notebook, sifting through them to refresh his memory and to underscore pertinent remarks, he tries to fashion a coherent whole, discarding the slack and embellishing the gist.


Faced with the facts of the Black case, however, Blue grows aware of his predicament. There is the notebook, of course, but when he looks through it to see what he was written, he is disappointed to find such paucity of detail. It’s as though his words, instead of drawing out the facts and making them sit palpably in the world, have induced them to disappear. This has never happened to Blue before. […]it suddenly occurs to Blue that he can no longer depend on the old procedures. Clues, legwork, investigative routine — none of this is going to matter anymore. But then, when he tries to imagine what will replace these things, he gets nowhere.

“The facts” become uncertain and arguments are pointless, in that they have no point and it’s pointless to form them. Every subject, every “text” if you will, is just an occasion for more creation. So Blue is tempted to add his own baseless speculations to his reports, and the writer Paul Auster in CITY writes an essay on the true authorship of DON QUIXOTE (there is a lot of explicit mentioning of classic literature, not just Cervantes and Milton but mostly Americans like Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau).

It’s tempting, and ive indulged it, to pit the postmodern against realism — especially as the critics express such hostility against non-realist works and praise of realistic ones, even from the same author. But pomo is realism, or at least its dialectical half, which Lyotard always understood. It pulls away the “comforting bourgeois sobriety” as the narrator in CITY puts it, so now you can see how things really are.

But this aspect of realism within pomo is the most striking part of the Trilogy. Auster’s narration throughout seems to embody conventional realism. Two of the three are third person, and the “I” of the last book, THE LOCKED ROOM, is apparently the “author” of the previous two. But then again authors and their author-ity are also constructs and misunderstandings of how language makes the self. This is Foucault’s wisdom. Books dont need authors, we need authors in order to talk about books with any pretense to coherence (having fun yet?).

Each volume of the trilogy has a taught and erudite prose characteristic of Auster’s writing elsewhere. The narrator seems to know everything that’s going on, aware of a vast system at work. But by the end of each installment these narrators are not as reliable as they appear (the “I” creeps in). It’s in narrational tension that Auster works through how postmodernism changes our perception of reality, in a way that is more readable than the high pomo bricks of the 70s. But probably the most memorable parts will be the passages on the most destitute people in the streets of NY, the (post?) existential ennui of the city, the feeling of constant displacement.

9.9.15 Edit: ive since heard charges that the Trilogy is without any human feeling. i think it’s more like it explores a particular one, that of how it feels to know that you have completely thrown away your shot at happiness, and there is no one to blame but yourself, your own paranoia and (male) egoism. It’s a deep sort of despair that these protagonists enter, and the response is to run deep inside of yourself and go total hikikomori. So this may be a good thing to read if you are in that kind of situation.


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