kaelan's Reviews > The New York Trilogy

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
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it was amazing
Read 2 times. Last read July 6, 2012 to July 20, 2012.

First, a brief harangue. I can't help but noticing how often the word "pretentious" has been thrown around in the reviews for this book. What a bothersome word: pretentious. It's a lot like the word "boring," in that they both seem to fool the user into thinking that they mean something objective, when in fact they're highly subjective. Nothing is inherently boring, just as nothing is inherently pretentious. On the contrary, these words say a lot more about the speaker than they do about the thing they're supposedly describing.

What does it mean, then, when someone calls a book "pretentious"? Let's dissect it. What they really seem to be saying is this: "I didn't find meaning in this book, therefore anyone who claims to have found meaning is not telling the truth." And this boils down to the following syllogism: "I am an intelligent reader; therefore anyone who is also an intelligent reader will share my opinion of this book; anyone who doesn't share my opinion, therefore, isn't an intelligent reader." A valid inference, no doubt, but hardly sound. This is because the whole argument hinges on one unavoidable fact: that by using the word "pretentious," one is implicitly assuming that they themselves are intelligent. And everyone knows that only dumb people think they're smart.

So hate on Paul Auster all you want. Say that you found his plots predictable; say that you found his characters unsympathetic; say whatever the fuck you want. But don't call his writing—or his fans—"pretentious." Because that's just being lazy. And beyond that, it only makes you sound pretentious.

City of Glass: *****

Speaking of coincidences:

I have this loose policy that whenever I'm reading a book of fiction, I also read something non-fiction; and in this particular instance, "City of Glass" was counterbalanced by David Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach.

Now, it is not my aim to create a sort of synchronicity between any two books I have on the go at any certain time. In this case, my non-fiction choice was based solely on the fact that the book was immediately available.

And yet, I was surprised by a number of similarities that arose between the two. First, both books explicitly mention the Tower of Babel (in fact, if you have a copy of the Penguin Deluxe Classics edition of the trilogy, they both even display artistic renderings of it). Both books also focus extensively on language—in particular, its relation to "reality." But perhaps most importantly, both explore the notion of systems (mathematical, artistic, etc.), as well as what it means to operate outside of said system.

For Hofstadter, this means the ability to interpret a system in a way that isn't explicitly contained within that system, which is a crucial tool for any mathematician (or more specifically, any meta-mathematician). And it's a crucial tool for Paul Auster the writer too. In "City of Glass," he creates a "strange loop" (Hofstadter's term) between the world captured by the narrative and the one inhabited by the reader, with no clear line between them: the boundaries between what's real and what's fiction are masterfully blurred.

Reading the novel, you almost begin to suspect that you were meant to be a character, that Auster probably viewed our world as identical (or at least isomorphic) to the one inhabited by Quinn, Stillman, et. al. And if that's not cool enough: by the end of the novel, Auster turns the tables again, and you finish feeling like every symbol of the story has to be reinterpreted, like the entire piece has undergone a semantic shift.

Brainy, deep, fun and highly recommended.

Ghosts: *****

Reviewing these stories without spoiling them is kind of like trying to defuse a bomb: one with a lot of colourful and potentially unnecessary trip-wires. So in order to minimize the risk, I'm going to refrain from talking about any of the specifics of "Ghosts," and instead focus on my more general impressions of the novel.

Here we are: I think it might be even better than "City of Glass." No wait, that can't be right. Because "City of Glass" was pretty fucking amazing. Really, I don't know; I was blown away by both. Indeed, it's true that harboured the fear, from the opening few pages, that the second installment of Auster's trilogy would be perhaps a little too cutesy, with the colour-names and all ("Blue, a student of Brown, has been hired by White to spy on Black..."). But I should have by then been aware that Paul Auster does everything for a reason. Or perhaps more specifically, when he does something for no reason, it's always for a good reason.

Anyways, what I'm excited for now is finding out whether or not "The Locked Room" keeps up the trend...

The Locked Room: ***** (???)

I forget exactly where, but I believe it's in one of his letters that Plato writes, "your best ideas you don't write down" (or something to that effect). What he means, I believe, is that truth has a tendency to avoid complete linguistic formalization, that it avoids ever being "captured." This concept—or a similar one—was at the core of "City of Glass." But with "The Locked Room," Auster seems to be actually writing it, as opposed to just writing about it.

This is because it's easy to see how things like the character of Fanshawe, his assorted sub-textual works, the "locked room, etc. all map onto aspects of the novel itself. And on a more general level, this serves to comment on our notions of self-hood, language and perception(s) of reality. In this way, The New York Trilogy is a philosophy book disguised as a piece of literature. And yet that's not entirely accurate, because it's hard—if not impossible—to imagine how it's contents could be conveyed in any other form than they are here.

As Auster himself admits, the story found in "The Locked Room" is merely a facet of a larger one, one that permeates the entire trilogy. With "City of Glass," we were taken to the limits of language. "The Locked Room" performs a similar feat—less obviously, but perhaps more significantly. Auster gives us facts and he gives us names. And from these pieces we construct entire characters: Fanshawe, the unnamed narrator, even a Peter Stillman. But what does this mean? Who is Fanshawe? We are made aware, for instance, of a stark disjunction between pre- and post-disappearance Fanshawe. But with what authority can these two men be said to be the same person? And is anyone ever really just one person?

Whenever you read a novel—although perhaps this one more so than most—you are engaged in a gathering and compiling facts. You are, for all intents and purposes, a detective: picking up clues, discarding others as irrelevant. And from these, you ultimately construct a cohesive narrative, a story. If you disagree with this sentiment, just think to the Peter Stillman who appears near the end of the novel. Who can help but wonder whether or not this is in fact the same Peter Stillman as was contained within the pages of "City of Glass"? For we, as readers, cannot help but straying from the text, escaping from its finite world. We draw connections, create links. Never is the text a self-contained entity. Ever.

And Auster, it appears, has a keen understanding of this. So the question he seems to be asking is, what is the relationship between fact and fiction? Between name and thing? And when you finish the novel (both "The Locked Room" and the trilogy as a whole), you come to realize that it (the book) is forcing you to ask the very same thing of itself.
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Reading Progress

July 6, 2012 – Started Reading
July 6, 2012 – Started Reading
July 6, 2012 – Shelved
July 7, 2012 –
page 23
July 19, 2012 –
page 237
July 20, 2012 –
page 308
July 20, 2012 – Finished Reading
July 20, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-27 of 27 (27 new)

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Adam this is brilliant.

message 3: by Adam (last edited Jul 07, 2012 08:30AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Adam No, he did not. He is tragically and deeply inaccurate, however.

kaelan Just finished City of Glass. Holy. Shit.

message 5: by Ani (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ani yeah, um, shit!

Adam The really annoying thing about words like 'pretentious' and 'boring' is that they often are just examples of hideously poor communication. I know that I've been guilty, for example, of dismissing Terrence Malick's films as both those things, when in reality I have much less vague and much more interesting bones to pick with Malick's approach to film-making and have legitimate reasons why I think his films, other than Badlands, are aesthetic failures (still perhaps subjective, but at least substantive). That is often the case when people use either of those words, but they don't offer those reasons up for discussion because they don't want to do the thinking and reasoning required to offer a substantive opinion, so they, like I still do with Malick, just throw around words like 'pretentious,' 'boring,' 'charlatan,' 'pseudo-intellectual' etc. and it's really just no fun for anyone.

Also, I find some of the reviews on GR surprising, because while this trilogy has some lit-theory underpinnings and such, it doesn't strike me as an academic venture, and from my experience with people who have read this, it appeals to a lot of people who don't have time for 'highbrow' lit and certainly not for pomo trickery. So the whole deal is a bit confusing to me.

message 7: by Ani (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ani ^
I read it and found much to enjoy about it, being an un-academic reader! :)

I think the solution to saying something's "pretentious" (and wanting to maintain credibility) is to just throw away the word and instead say why you would have chosen it...

I think the solution to saying something's "pretentious" (and wanting to maintain credibility) is to just throw away the word and instead say why you would have chosen it...

Totes magotes.

message 9: by Chris (last edited Sep 13, 2012 09:17AM) (new)

Chris I think that "pretentious" is a perfectly legitimate word and the whole "we are better than people who use that word" tone that some users here are using is a little hypocritical. Now, yes I do agree that the word is sometimes over-used by people who don't understand things but the solution isn't to censor it from discourse by making it taboo but rather to make sure that people support their arguments with real examples.

You said: //It’s a lot like the word “boring,” in that they both seem to fool the user into thinking that they mean something objective, when in fact they’re highly subjective.//

When reading a book review (or any review), one knows that it is a subjective account of a person's personal opinions and experiences; that's what a review is, by definition. So as long as there is elaboration, the subjective use of the word "pretentious" is quite appropriate.
And doesn't the use of the words "Brainy, deep, fun" in your review also "fool the user into thinking that they mean something objective, when in fact they’re highly subjective". Hypocricy, maybe? Saying that something is "brainy" and "deep" also has the implication that you think you are smart person and intellectual enough to recognise this about the novel. And as you said about people who use the word "pretentious", "everyone knows that only dumb people think they’re smart"; so does that include you?

I'm not saying all this to sound aggresive but I don't think that you should dismiss the word completely and all the people who use it as "dumb" just because you don't agree with them. That, in my subjective opinion, seems a little pretentious.

message 10: by Chris (new)

Chris Adam wrote: "I know you're talking to Kaelan, but as I said, the problem is more that the word is an example of hideously poor communication. I'm not saying you can't call something pretentious, but the example..."

I personally have not used the word "pretentious" to describe this book, but I wouldn't be against doing so in future about this or any other novel. "Poor communication" only occurs when one is unable to adequately articulate an idea or opinion, not by the words used. If somebody dismisses somebody elses valid opinion as unintellectual solely because of one word they used rather than judging them on the merit of their argument, then that just sounds like intellectual snobbery. I really do believe that it is possible to use the word "pretentious" in regard to a novel. A good case might be made of a novel being called pretentious if it's an english language novel, aimed at young readers (10-13 yrs old) and every paragraph is filled with frequent french and latin phrases which have little or no relevance to plot or character; another could be made if an author writes a novel and constantly quotes other writers such as Plato, Homer, and Shakespeare excessively and with little purpose, seemingly only display his/her immense knowledge. These are obviously made up examples so I couldn't support them with quotes but then most reviewers don't support every assertion and judgement they make with quotes. So why single out the word "pretentious"? It baffles me.

message 11: by kaelan (last edited Sep 13, 2012 04:16PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

kaelan Thanks for your comments, Chris; I'll try and respond to them as fairly as I can.

First, your point that, "If somebody dismisses somebody elses [sic] valid opinion as unintellectual solely because of one word they used rather than judging them on the merit of their argument, then that just sounds like intellectual snobbery." I complete agree with you: disregarding someone's argument because of a (possibly) minor point is unjustified, acrimonious, and just plain lazy—everything I was reacting against in the first place. However, I've found—and this is solely experiential—that it is often the case that people who of use words such as "pretentious" and "boring" do not, in fact, go on to qualify their assertions.

But let's take your example of a 'pretentious young-adult novel.' You call this hypothetical book 'pretentious' because it is excessively and unnecessarily esoteric (if you would permit me to such a gloss). My initial response is that, actually, that's not really what pretentious means. "Pretentious"—looking at, let's say, the OED entry—is defined as something "Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed; making an exaggerated outward display; ostentatious, showy" (and my apologies for pulling out a dictionary definition). So yes, a YA book heavy on classical-allusions might be pretentious. But do you see how this is making a factual claim in regards to the author's inward mental-state when he/she wrote the thing? Allow me to explain myself: it is also possible that the author was merely inept at writing for the target audience; let's say, for instance, that they've made the assumption that everyone, as part of their basic grade-school education, has read Homer and Virgil and Ovid. Thus, in such a case, the novel is not technically 'pretentious.' It fails at what it attempts to do, yes (and it's my opinion that 'what it attempts to do' is also something that needs to be supported evidentially); but if you want to play the game of language and use definitions like everyone else does, you can't confidently call it pretentious.

So where are we? Essentially, you've made the claim that 'x is pretentious, for reasons a, b c.' Hypothetical YA novel is pretentious, in your words, because "every paragraph is filled with frequent french and latin phrases which have little or no relevance to plot or character." But the evidence doesn't support the conclusion. The author may or may not be attempting to "impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed"—who are you to say? At best, what we know is that the book probably won't jive with the target audience. Furthermore, if you actually do possess evidence for your claim that 'x is pretentious,' why not just argue those points, and leave out the problematic p-word all together? "Pretentious," then, either serves as place-holder for an actual thought-out argument, or it's redundant. Either way, why bother with it?

And in regards to your first comment, what I definitely 100% don't want is for a certain word to become taboo. All I desire is for people to think about what they're saying, and don't let these 'cheap' words—"boring," "pretentious"—stand-in for legitimate articulate discourse.

As a final word, I'm not going to respond to your point about how 'all word usage ultimately comes from the I' (sorry for the paraphrase), but I think it's an important thing to think about, and you can say a lot about it.

—alright, all I'll say is this: YES, a certain epistemological position holds that all subjectively asserted propositions are—gasp!—subjective. But when I use an adjective such as "brainy," "deep" or "fun," you have to work a little to show that they are, deep deep down inside, making a normative claim. But with "pretentious," that claim's pretty obvious.

Anyways, if you've read this far, thank-you for your time and patience—more time and patience than this rant probably deserves.

message 12: by Megan (new) - added it

Megan Thank you for your bravery. I was mislead about Paul Auster, and your review convinced me to give the trilogy a shot. I am so glad I did, and in revisiting your review, I commend you again! Megan

kaelan Ah shucks. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Megan!

Michael Sussman Excellent review, which nicely captures what I love about Auster's trilogy.

LindaH I wish there were more reviews like this. Will definitely read New York Trilogy, may pull out my copy of the Escher book.

Victoria I've just finished The New York Trilogy, and thoroughly enjoyed it even if my rain does hurt a little(!), and have been desperately reading through reviews and essays looking for some aid with piecing it all together.

Your review is fantastic and hopefully it will inspire others to read the book as well. I think to get closer and figure everything out I may have to go back and read the book again though - not a hardship :)

Mark Hebwood I think the the reasoning of people who use the word "pretentious" to describe a book may work slightly differently. I have always felt they are saying this: "I am intelligent therefore I understand stuff. I do not understand this stuff therefore I may not be as intelligent as I think. I wish to avoid this conclusion and shall therefore redefine this stuff as unworthy of my attention. This I can accomplish of branding the object of my confusion as 'prententious'". Job done, self-respect preserved.

Laura Kaelan, you captured the essence of this novel perfectly. I just want to link to your review & say, "What he said..."

Brian Cowlishaw Love your insightful comments here. Thank you!

Remko :-)

message 21: by Ray (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ray With you on that.Author of GEB is Douglas H, and I'm reading that now, too.

message 22: by Anubha (new) - added it

Anubha Great review Kealen. :) I absolutely loved the book, even though I am foggy on a few points.

Annchen Love this review; perfectly expressed

message 24: by Sherri (new) - added it

Sherri Flaherty I love Paul Auster's writing and, in fact, he is one of my favorite authors...right up there with Margaret Atwood, Orson Scott Card, Octavia Butler, and A.A. Attanasio, on my list, anyway! That happens to be my opinion and I enjoy his stories, I'm not sure I can exactly say why but I can feel it myself. Not everybody gets the same thing out of a book that I do. And, I will say, that the reverse is also true for me sometimes when someone else may find joy in a book I can't read.

message 25: by idiffer (last edited Jan 25, 2018 03:43AM) (new) - added it

idiffer "We are made aware, for instance, of a stark disjunction between pre- and post-disappearance Fanshawe. But with what authority can these two men be said to be the same person? And is anyone ever really just one person?" (c) review

This is why pretentious is not what u say it is, to me. Pretentious novels are considered deeper than they are, which is not very deep. Sure you found meaning, but the value of that meaning? Meh. Like is anyone one person? You asked the question, but did the novel answer it? Meanwhile there are already answer-books about the fragmented organization of the psyche, this concept was at the question-stage in the time of Nietsche. Oh, you were talking about our identity time-wise? That's a non-issue.

message 26: by Gary (new)

Gary Knoke I only got through part of your harangue before I decided you were pretentious, and boring.

message 27: by Huck (new)

Huck Flynn I'm a big fan of the Trilogy - it makes you work a bit but it's entertaining. There are of course things that are pretentious and people who do pretentious things but I don't find this the case with the Trilogy. Confusing yes, complicated yes but pretentious, no.

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