Auster’s first fiction published under his own name was three novellas, initially published separately in 1985-6, then collected as The New York Trilogy (NYT). I discovered the NYT when it first came out in paperback in the UK. I was attracted to the cover, also bearing Faber & Faber’s livery (right); the blurb promised detective stories – that was enough for me.
When I started reading, it was obvious from the start that these three novellas were not merely detective stories, although each is narrated by someone fulfilling that function. I instantly loved how Auster put himself into the first story, City of Glass – firstly as a mistaken identity, then later as himself briefly, and I learned a new word ‘metafiction’ to describe this. If you imagine Edward Hopper paintings as novels, you’ll get one sense of the NYT. I love Hopper, and I loved this book.
Consequently I treated myself to the Folio Society’s wonderful edition (left), with gorgeous illustrations by Tom Burns, which I was lucky enough to get Auster to sign for me, when I met him at Faber & Faber while he was in the UK promoting 4-3-2-1 back in 2017. (More on that here!).
The three novellas include many themes that Auster returns to again and again. The role of coincidence and its influence on the path taken is a particular fascination – from the NYT to his most recent novel 4-3-2-1. Another major theme is the writer’s life – often he nests stories inside his stories, his narrators are often writers. New York, and Brooklyn where he lives, often have a starring role too.
His protagonists are nearly always men, only In the Country of Last Things, his early dystopian novel, has a female main character, and Timbuktu is told by a dog. These two thus stand out in their difference to his other novels.
He enjoys writing about ordinary life and the ordinary preoccupations of his protagonists, from the photographer Auggie Wren to the four Archies in 4-3-2-1, his novels are rich in detail of their American lives (but less intensely described than, say, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch). His protagonists are often lonely too, for many reasons, searching for something which always gives a sense of yearning to the text.
His stories and themes can be quite serious, but Auster’s writing is often playful too. The Brooklyn Follies which I’ve just read, and 4-3-2-1 particularly come to mind, both novels I loved. Although they have moments of intense drama, they are more often than not light-hearted. I also like the way that Auster mines his ‘own chronology’, as he puts it, for semi-autobiographical detail – both Moon Palace and 4-3-2-1 feature the student demos at Columbia University in 1968 where Auster was studying at the time for instance.
So far, I’ve only mentioned his novels, but his several volumes of autobiography and essays are full of the same preoccupations, indeed in The Red Notebook he describes the wrong number call asking for a detective that led him to write City of Glass. His memoirs are usually hung on a particular theme or event such as the death of his father in The Invention of Solitude, or his ageing body (at 64) in Winter Journal, which I particularly enjoyed.
Auster is not afraid to experiment with different styles of writing or structure, his memoir Winter Journal is told in the second person, – written to himself, whereas Invisible’s sections go from 1st to 2nd to 3rd persons. In the Country of Last Things may be dystopian, but it’s also epistolary, then we have the bold overlapping stories of four possible lives in 4-3-2-1. All his work is rich in intertextuality too ranging from enthusing about Laurel and Hardy in 4-3-2-1 to resonances with Don Quixote in City of Glass.
Have I convinced you yet?
His books are all eminently readable. If you find the idea of the stylised New York Trilogy too much to begin with, The Brooklyn Follies (review coming v.soon) from the middle of his list would be a good place to start – it’s a warm-hearted and satisfying family drama with plenty of humour.
I’m currently dipping into his collected poetry. A lot of it is rather abstract and consequently difficult in comparison with his fiction. I’ll admit I haven’t quite warmed to his poems yet in the same way as his novels and non-fiction, but don’t let that distract you!
So why not give Auster a go…