A Rant on Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy, and the Postmodern Condition

In general, I do not subscribe to the notion of a postmodern condition. Nor am I a fan of the literary endeavors that took up the banner of so-called postmodernism. The dogma that everything has become a text, the blurring of all boundaries between fiction and reality, the death of history (and pretty much everything else from the subject to the author), endless circulation in the loop of a meaningless present, schizophrenia, and the waning of all grand narratives lends itself as the cultural superstructure of global monopoly capitalism at a time when this dying system hubristically assigns for itself the throne as the end of history.

In short, this eclectic claptrap of a seemingly arcane body of theoretical knowledge has all too easily legitimized and reinforced the rule of the world capitalist system. In this consumerist fun house, the worship of the text has become privileged over the arduous investigation of material reality. The immersion in the delights of the present has made it impossible to see a comprehensive v of the past, its consequences for the present, and its implication of the future. Ultimately, the belief that we have reached a historical phase marked by “incredulity toward metanarratives” (mis)presents imperialist globalization as eternal.

Much of what is generally called postmodern literature generally replicates this tendency to (prematurely) pronounce the death of the subject and the end of history. Without any anchor on the past or a commitment to the future, these texts generally wallow in an eternal present, are disengaged from the lost causes of bygone times, become obsessed with the minutiae of the body, or are captured by self-reflexive fragmented consciousness. They fail to inaugurate the big debates sparked by the 19th Century realist classics, the early 20th Century modernist masterpieces, and their contemporary descendants.

So we descend into Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, that guilt-ridden confession of the Filipino comprador-landlord class’ futility, from the peak of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Jose Rizal’s fiery denunciation of the evils that the former has become a subtle apologist for. The playful nuance deployed in multi-layered postmodern novels such as Ilustrado seems to portray present social conditions in a most intricate manner. But instead of presenting criticism or unveiling an alternative, the overall thrust of all the winding verbalism is essentially directed at preserving the ruling system.

While some are genuinely amusing (say Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), much “postmodern literature” tends toward a bleak nihilism as the only escape from an eternal capitalist present. The first Paul Auster novel I read, Travels in the Scriptorium neatly fits into this mould. It’s like this. Just imagine if all those commercial romance pocket books suddenly changed genres and turned “postmodern.” You’ll get Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium. Offering nothing new at all, that hackneyed Auster novel practically made a cliché out of self-reflexivity and intertextuality.

Not so, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Composed of three interconnected, but seemingly distinct works, namely The City of Glass (where a writer slowly descends into madness in a case he took on as a private investigator), Ghosts (where a private detective also loses his mind as he becomes immersed in the life of the man he was paid to shadow), and The Locked Room (where a writer suddenly vanishes, leaving his childhood friend to publish his works and assume his place in his family), The New York Trilogy starts out with the usual conventions befitting any other postmodern work.

In The City of Glass the question of which reality is real or how real is reality as the different layers of identity assumed by the narrator gets more mixed up and mixed up as the narrative advances towards the end: the protagonist Daniel Quinn dropped out of his former life after the death of his wife and son and started to write mysteries under the name William Wilson. He is mistaken for a detective named Paul Auster and decides to accept a case assuming this name. Quinn also meets another Paul Auster, who is not at all a detective but also a writer, just like the real-world author of The City of Glass.

Underscoring this feeling of being lost of identity is the fact of everyday living in the big city, with the feeling of loss in the seemingly inexhaustible urban jungle corresponding to the feeling of loss within the protagonist himself: “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… he was able to escape the obligation to think.” The mechanical and fast-paced life in the consumerist labyrinth results in the loss of purpose: “By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal and it no longer mattered where he was.”

The same questioning of the reality of reality is found in Ghosts where the private eye protagonist Blue reached a point where he has become so immersed in the life of his subject Black (“He doesn’t do anything, that’s what. He just sits in his room all day and writes. It’s enough to drive you crazy.”) only to find out that Blue’s situation is almost an exact replica of Black’s situation who is also immersed in the life of another subject that he is also tailing. That subject, of course, turns out to be Black himself, with White, the man paying Blue to tail Black turning out to be one and the same person. Almost always, the situation can be summed up in the words of the protagonist near the climax of The Locked Room:

From one moment to the next, I seemed to be in a different place, to forget where I was. Thoughts stop where the world begins, I kept telling myself. But the self is also in the world, I answered, and likewise the thoughts that come from it. The problem was that I could no longer make the right distinctions… everything was beginning to have the same taste to me. I no longer felt hungry, I could no longer bring myself to eat.

The New York Trilogy is chockfull off references to other texts and to extra-textual materials. Talking to Paul Auster in the novel, Daniel Quinn finds him writing an essay on Don Quixote, in which the delusions of the hero finds resonances in the equally hallucinatory world of Quinn (who also shares Quixote’s initials). The first of the trilogy takes the championship for the most number of citations to various really-existing and imaginary texts. In The Locked Room, the vanished writer’s name Fanshawe alludes to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel of the same name. Meanwhile, Black mentions another story by Hawthorne in a conversation with Blue in Ghosts. The Hawthorne tale “Wakefield” is about a man who ran away from his wife, spent his time observing their house from a hidden place for years before deciding to return in their old age.

The book is a book about books, writers, and the act of writing. In standard postmodern fashion, The City of Glass‘ Quinn, wrote crime fiction based entirely on what “he had learned from books, films, and newspapers. He did not, however, consider this to be a handicap. What interested him about the stories he wrote was not their relation to the world but their relation to other stories.” In Ghosts, Blue tries to pry into Black’s psyche by reading the book he was reading. We are told about the narrator’s writing habits in The Locked Room, the world of publishing and its intricacies, the choice of notebooks, and so on.

In a way, the dilemmas expressed in the trilogy are symptomatic of the increasing separation between the intellectual middle classes and the actual process of social production, and the corresponding intensification of individualism and one-sided focus on the act of consuming. This is particularly true in its problematization of the seeming gap between the words and the linguistic realm on the one hand and the sphere of the material world, experience, and signification on the other, as the discussion in The City of Glass exemplifies:

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.

All in all, The New York Trilogy seems reflective of the loss of cognitive mapping in the advanced urban centers of global capitalism characteristic of the apogee of what Lenin defined as its monopoly stage. In Frederic Jameson’s own words:

It reflects the disintegration of the older codified social wisdom; a proliferation of private languages and private philosophies that is itself but the reflection of the increasing automization of private existence; the alienation of language by commercial uses and the commercial media; in short, the division of labor and the structural mystification of the middle classes about their own social reality, a mystification more complex and of a far greater intensity than that obtaining in any previous kind of society (“Criticism in History”).

But amidst the common theme of the loss of identity, the seemingly endless self-reference, and the game of cat and mouse wherein the question of who is chasing who is overturned, is a common thread that ties the three novels together into one trilogy. The key is the last novel where everything is tied together. It is here that we realize that all three are attempts at retelling the same narrative thrice. What we have are different versions of the same truth, which the narrator writes to recover from a traumatic experience. These function as a form of therapy to confront the past in order to overcome the present and move on.

The end, however, is clear to me. I have not forgotten it, and I feel lucky to have kept that much. The entire story comes down to what happened at the end, and without that end inside me now, I could not have started this book. The same holds for the two books that come before it, City of Glass and Ghosts. These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about.

The ending is the closest to the truth. Contrary to postmodernist dogma that there is no truth, that everything is blurred, that the boundary between fiction and reality has been breached, here we are presented with the step by step unveiling of the truth. Quinn yields to madness, for a time Blue also gives in to temporary insanity but eventually escapes, while it is the protagonist of The Locked Room who overcomes. The element of closure is a welcome change to the endless circuitous loop that I half-expected of The New York Trilogy from its very beginning. In the end there is redemption, not nihilistic destruction.


  1. Excellent review of what appears to be a trilogy of self-conscious tricks. I’ve been well-warned of Auster by other reviews, and so I’ve never gotten curious of his work. I find ‘postmodernism’ a tricky catch-all term. I found I enjoy some novels falling under its rubric, and could not even get past a few pages of others. I guess it’s just like traditional works of lyrical realism and linear narratives. You like some or you don’t.

  2. Yes, the idea of “postmodernism” as championed by several figures in the humanities is problematic. Lots of well-crafted works utilizing playful techniques branded as “postmodern” by the academe but do not share their mission-vision of inaugurating the so-called “end of truth,” “end of reality,” and “end of history.” I like those kinds of works, especially if they use same “postmodernist” modes against the system

  3. I’m just curious if ‘postmodern’ literary techniques are in themselves reactionary, because as you know, even these are political, or are these somewhat ‘neutral’ politically speaking and can be utilized for progressive literature? Progressive art does not limit itself to certain forms but some people say that using postmodern forms is decadent bourgeois. And yes, Travels in the Scriptorium is total bullshit.

  4. Hehehe, I think literary forms can never be neutral; they will always be implicated in the struggle between the dominant and the dominated classes. But to say that a particular form is totally red or another is totally white is to forget how the particular terms of the contradiction between the two worldviews takes shape in a certain art form. I have no time to look into it now but it should be great to look into the matter of what constitutes the principal contradiction in ‘postmodern literary works’. Several artistic forms in the countryside originally arising from a feudal or semi-slave context have been appropriated by the revolutionary movement for the purpose of empowering the poorest of the poor. The short story form was taught to subaltern Filipino writers in the Philippine context as part of the US colonial project. However, the same form was eventually utilized by progressives to advance an explicitly anti-imperialist cause. Instead of surrendering these techniques to the reactionaries and allowing them to define the field, shouldn’t we be more interested about which aspects of these so-called ‘postmodern’ forms can be appropriated for progressive means and what aspects should prove to be resistant to such an aim? :)

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