The New York Trilogy (1987)
By Paul Auster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
In a few weeks I'm going to have the opportunity to read Paul Auster's surprise new novel, 4 3 2 1, which has already been gathering up tons of accolades from early reviewers; but I've never actually read any work by Auster before, so I thought I'd start with the very first thing he published, The New York Trilogy which originally consisted of three separate small novels in the 1980s, but is now only sold as a one-volume set (but more later on why this is). And that's when I discovered the big surprise -- that far from the dowdy, boring academic writer I had thought Auster was all these years, based exclusively on the types of people who like his work and what they have to say about it, he instead turns out to be this incredible penner of so-called "New Weird" stories, the kinds of books that first became popular during the second half of Postmodernism precisely for being hard to define -- part literary, part horror, part mystery, part science-fiction -- and that have since become a staple of our current popular culture here in the 21st century.
And indeed, I don't know why it took so long for all this to click in my head, given how long I've been a fan of some of these writers, but reading Auster for the first time made me realize that there's actually a whole wing of popular writers sort of buried within the second half of the Postmodernist era who can be described this way, including Thomas Pynchon, Jon Crowley, Haruki Murakami, Tim Powers and more; and that since what these authors were trying to accomplish was so new and so hard to define, the literary world has ended up sort of looking at these writers in completely different ways based on the person (Pynchon is considered an academe who's lucked into some popular success; Crowley is considered a genre writer who has lucked into some academic respectability), instead of seeing them as parts of a much larger "New Weird" movement that unifies everything they've been doing over the last forty years.
For those who don't know, the term was invented by Jeff VanderMeer in the '90s, as a riff off the old term "Weird" from the Victorian Age; back then there were no such things as separate categorizations for "science-fiction" and "noir" and "horror," so basically anything metaphysical was thrown into this general catch-all label, which then encouraged writers to freely flow from one trope to the other within a single book. It was only in the Modernist period of the early 20th century, VanderMeer argues, that these genres became calcified and started developing their rigid rules that authors weren't allowed to deviate from; but what Postmodernism gave us was an explosion of these rules (as well as every other rule about "proper writing" that had been invented up to then), allowing a new generation of authors to once again go in and blend these genres together in interesting and unique ways. And although VanderMeer was specifically talking in his case about the newest generation of genre writers who were just starting to become popular in those years -- people like Charles Stross, China Mieville, Cory Doctorow and more -- I'm coming to realize that you can actually go back an entire generation to see the formation of this New Weird school of thought, one that got its start in the experimental hippie years of the countercultural era, but that didn't really come into its own as a cultural force until the Reagan years of the 1980s.
That's exactly what makes these first three novels by Auster so intriguing, certainly, that they're so hard to traditionally describe; ostensibly detective tales, in which private investigators are hired by shady clients to track down nebulous targets, all three of these books start getting weirder and weirder the further in you get, eventually becoming treaties on identity, the power of naming things, and how the concepts of Transcendentalist thought from the 1800s do or do not particularly fit in the Electronic Age of the late 20th century. The more you read, the less you understand what's going on, and soon the books pick up a creepy vibe much more akin to horror than pulp fiction; but the explanation behind this creepy vibe is much more like sci-fi than horror, even as the books never just come out and explicitly state that something metaphysical is actually happening, leaving it a question as to whether our narrators are perhaps simply going insane from existential dread, a clear reference to the work of HP Lovecraft. Then in the third book, The Locked Room, Auster adds an even more complicated twist to it all, by having a certain character reveal that there's actually these strange nebulous ties between the characters in all three novels; and by the time we're done with the whole thing, we realize that all three books are simply large chapters within the same shared universe and uber-plotline, which is why since the '90s they've only been published anymore as one large volume.
Make no mistake -- Auster is essentially the American Murakami, one who even started writing at almost the exact same time as the other, and anyone who's a fan of that Japanese genre master will automatically be a fan of his American equivalent, no question about it whatsoever. And that raises an intriguing question, of why Murakami has become a millionaire superstar by the 21st century, as well as other New Weird writers like Thomas Pynchon finally now being classified as the complicated, genre-bending authors they are, while Auster forty years later is still mostly considered an obscure academic writer who can only be loved by erudite professors? I don't have an answer to this, because it's clearly not the case -- anyone who loved the old TV shows Lost or Twin Peaks, for example, will also love Auster's books, and it certainly doesn't take an MFA to understand what he's trying to do -- and it's my hope that his newest novel, his first in seven years and one being published when he's 70 years old, will finally start turning the tide a bit when it comes to his public reputation. He's an author who deserves to have a much wider audience than he currently does, a writer who would be loved by millions of sci-fi fans if they simply knew about his existence in the first place; and I encourage all of you genre fans to go and check out some of his work when you have a chance, a surprisingly gripping and easy-to-read author who will leave you wanting more. We'll see in a few weeks how he's held up as a writer in the forty years since these debut novels; but for now, I for one plan on checking out a wide range of his subsequent oeuvre when I have a chance, and I encourage you to do the same.