Paul Auster’s The New York trilogy is a fantastic (anti-)detective novel(s). Masterfully executed, the book is able to raise important questions about the nature of a person’s identity. In fact, questions is almost entirely what the book is based on because, for the most part, the reader is able to unveil little of the mysteries.
That’s why it’s the anti-detective novel. “The real story is in the struggle”, not in the solution. Auster excels not in letting the detectives figure out the intricate, elaborate mysteries, but in creating a complex plot that leaves the reader wondering who anyone is (including the book’s author), or whether anything is real at all.
In each of the three “novels” of the trilogy, the main character (which may or may not be a detective) gets caught up with a case. They all become obsessed, in some way or another, with it and, in the process of trying to understand “the other” (the one being investigated), they stop resembling their initial selves.
City of Glass ends with the disappearance of the investigator himself, after being struck by obsession and having his own self inorexably decline to a vanishing point. In the end, he sighs: “He had come to the end of himself. He could feel it now, as though a great truth had finally dawned on him. There was nothing left …. [The apartment] was gone, he was gone, everything was gone”.
In Ghosts, detective Blue identifies so deeply with his subject Black that, when it is revealed that it is the exact opposite of what he thought (Black is actually White), Blue is no longer the man he seems, any more than White was. Blue had been pursuing only himself, losing his identity at the expense of finding himself. He exists but he does not exist in himself nor for himself — he is a ghost.
Finally, The Locked Room has its final pages with the narrator ending the cycle of obsession. He breaks free of the grasp of his subject, stabilizing himself enough to keep on living, but not before undergoing a mental breakdown in the pursuit of Fanshawe and of the understanding of who he was.
For Auster, to claim you understand another is to lie to yourself. The detective is the one who is supposed to make sense of the seemingly random facts, but trying to do it implies that human behavior can be understood. Furthermore, words are the ultimate limiting factor in understanding, and it’s one we can’t simply circumvent, because they’re the only way we are able to see and process the world and, consequently, ourselves. To Paul, it is only through the construction of reality that we are truly able to perceive, rationalize and comprehend the one within which we are forced to spend our lives.
The quest the characters get into is supposedly to achieve an understanding of their subjects, but these are merely tools in which the investigator pursues the understanding of himself. Yet, in attempting to do so, they remain with little of what they were. Thus, obsession with the other makes each character lose their identities.
But even more interestingly, Paul shows that this loss can be ultimately attributed to chance alone. Each of the novels start with a coincidence, an event of fate, of randomness. In City of Glass, it’s a wrong number called. In Ghosts, it’s the start of a simple marriage-jealousy investigation. In The Locked Room, it’s a letter from an old friend’s widow.
These are the events that initiate the entire storyline, and that trigger the descent into madness in each of the protagonists. “Much later, when he was able to think about the things that had happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance”, as the narrator puts it.
A ringing phone, an opening door, or a letter falling light as a butterfly through a mail slot, can set off a psychological hurricane. Any event could set in motion the psychological chaos seen in The New York Trilogy. But I believe the opposite could happen as well.
Just like for each butterfly wing flap triggering a hurricane in Texas, there is another that stops one, so it must be with random events that lead to the loss of identity. It might be impossible to identify exactly which events happened (just like meteorologists can never blame Amazonian butterflies for hurricanes in Texas), but some do occur.
For me, the time it happened was the beginning of High School. Not living in the United States, I was not overwhelmed with “having to do extracurriculars and gain prestige to get into college”. My job as a student was much simpler: to study. Because, in my country, college admissions are decided based solely on the results of a yearly standardized test (not the best system, but wait and you’ll see why North America’s is not either).
Of course that did not stop me from pursuing extra curriculars. The only difference was focus. While in the United States the students are supposed to already know what their dreams, ambitions and goals are up front (so that they can start activities that line up with them), I was not limited by this. And, to be honest, I didn’t know what my dreams were. I barely knew who I am and what I liked. It was only in the middle of my senior year I figured out I want to major in Computer Engineering and even then I was wrong (current major is Computer Science).
Nevertheless, chaos did its part and, although I wouldn’t call it an “obsession”, I started to want to figure out my own identity. I did a bit of everything, from Mandarin to Marine Biology courses, to Model UNs and Scientific Olympiads. I programed, I read, I studied, I helped my colleagues with their own studies.
This was probably the issue with my first application to american colleges. I was able to show I was a well-rounded student, but I was not focused. I was too all-over-the-place. The consequences were rejections by my dream schools (though I will grant my dreams were pretty difficult to get in by themselves).
Even so, I would not trade my experience for anything in the world. If Paul Auster’s characters set out in a quest to lose their identities, I set out in one to find mine. Despite the limitations that words impose on our knowledge, I attempted to understand the world through the lens of politics, of arts, of science.
The story was, surely in the struggle. Every new historical fact I learned helped me understand better the world and, ultimately, myself. Every artist of whom I saw paintings gave me new aesthetic sensitivity. Every mathematical theorem was like music that I appreciated as if it were made by the greatest artist of all: nature. It all felt rewarding by themselves. I didn’t need grades to motivate me to study and read: I spent an entire week of summer vacation wrapping my head around Wikipedia’s “Postmodernism” article.
Still, my story had an ending similar to Au
ster’s characters. In setting out to find myself, I lost my identity as well. But the main difference was that, in the trilogy, the characters end up with fragments of what they were, being ultimately reduced to a single point of existence. Instead, my identity was inflated.
I discovered reinforcements of things I already knew I liked, such as playing video games and creating media. But others were nice surprises even to me, like the enjoyment I got when I taught my friends, the sense of understanding I got when I read about politics, the aesthetic transcendence I got when I looked at paintings or when I drew.
Many of those things were not “me” in the past. My journey altered my identity, just like in the book. And, in the end, this is why I wouldn’t trade my experience: the facts I found out are, today, what make up what I like to call “me”. If I am all over the place, that’s because, as Auster puts it, “in the end, each life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of ﬂukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose” and trying to make sense of it all might just prove to be impossible.
That’s basically how I spent my high school, doing a bit of everything, figuring out my tastes and beliefs. Dedicating myself not to doing nothing, but to ideas and to the soul. The ancient greeks practiced this philosophy. They even had a name for it: “skole”, which is poorly translated into english as “leisure” (portuguese translation is more accurate: “ócio”).
Skole. Seems familiar? It’s the origin of the modern word “school”. The reason is that, in dedicating yourself to ideas and leisure (but not apathetic leisure, but active, creative leisure), you learn about the world and about yourself. You better your mind and soul. You become cultured just like I like to think I did throughout high school.
It is interesting, then, that the origins of schooling is completely lost in the way we accept/decline kids *into* school. This type of leisure is simply being undervalued in college admissions. We’ve come to a point in which we expect kids to know up front what their passions are, and to demonstrate these passions in every aspect of their application. This is making exploration of interests impossible, and it’s why so many people feel unhappy with their career choices.
Sure, most universities allow for change of majors, but for some people that is not enough. If, midway through your education, you realize you don’t want to be an Electrical Engineer, but really want to pursue Art History; and if your institution is not coincidentally excelling in the Art History department, then you may think twice before changing majors. Transferring is not trivial.
In my country this is solved right in the admissions process: because a student is admitted based solely on a test score, anyone can have access to higher education, as long as they dedicate enough of their time to studying for said test.
If you get into any college in here, yes, you will see a bunch of recently-graduated high-schoolers. But you will also see people who are older. Some a bit older, held back a couple of years because major-changing (a process which sucks here, and requires you to take that test again, if the new major is not related to the current one), some much older, who decided only later in life what hey wanted to pursue.
But let me be clear. This is in no way an endorsement of this method of admission. In fact, a single standardized test might be the most near-sighted way of seeing a student. The main point here is not that this is the better method, it’s that the North American counterpart can be just as unfair.
And, as Auster put it, words are limiting. No student can be understood through simplistic, word-counted essays.
Maybe if we all go back to wearing togas, we would also go back to watching the clouds go by and thinking about art. And maybe then more people will be able to dedicate their time to creating their identity, instead of losing it through mindless obsession with college admissions.