The last time I remember feeling this mentally exhausted from reading a book - a good exhaustion, mind you, if such a thing exists - was when I read George Orwell's 1984 a couple of years ago. For me, 1984 was pure intellectual calisthenics, and even if I knew I still had questions in my head when I finished reading it, it was all good. The New York Trilogy was all that, and more. Until now, months after I've read it, I'm still reeling when I recall the stories.
The New York Trilogy is composed of essentially mystery stories: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, separately and successively published in the foregoing order. I say "essentially" because the stories were peppered with questions, one mystery on top of another, and just as you begin to think that you have all the answers coming near the end of each story, you'll realize that you've stumbled upon yet another, bigger question - and you have no answers after all.
City of Glass started out good. Daniel Quinn, a detective-type story writer, receives a phone call meant for a certain Paul Auster, but for reasons only he knows - curiosity, boredom? - he goes and pretends that he is Paul Auster, who would turn out to be a private investigator. Quinn plays the role of Detective Auster to the hilt until he hits a snag in the course of his accepted task. What then?
Ghosts is a story about colors mixing and getting muddled and providing more confusing things to ponder about. Blue is a detective hired by White to watch Black and report everything - White even goes so far as to provide Blue an apartment with a direct and unobstructed view of Black's apartment right across the street. But somewhere in the middle of the surveillance, it would seem that the Colors are playing entirely different roles from what they were first made out to be. Are we getting warmed up yet? :)
Finally, The Locked Room - which I would reckon to be the story I liked most of all - is a story of substitution: a writer ups and leaves, disappears and leaves behind not only a very pregnant wife but also a closetful of his unpublished works. The poor wife telephones the writer's friend, who comes to the rescue and practically steps into the shoes of the absentee friend: he marries the wife, stands as father to the kid, and endeavors to publish the whole cache of literary works left behind by the desaparecido. Another story of assuming identities? Who is who?
I would not have remotely liked this book were it not for the seamless and effulgent prose: Auster definitely knows his stuff. And it was just as well - it is difficult enough to engage in mental calisthenics without the added burden of wading through bad writing. Imagine the effort that it would have required, which wouldn't even be worth it in the end. Fortunately for Auster, he masterfully weaved the mysteries and riddles into layers of seamless words in order to construct a readable work.
I have also had my share of detective and mystery stories, but none were quite as complicated and mind-bending as this one. It made me doubt several times if I had truly understood what I was reading, and I took it as a challenge. See, the stories were seemingly related, but they were actually independent. That's another aspect of this trilogy that I liked: you wouldn't know that the stories weren't actually related or anchored upon the same storyline because there was an apparent continuity, such that the stories as they were written appear to be directly linked to each other. The writer in City of Glass could very well be the same character in The Locked Door, see, and there wouldn't be any inconsistencies in how the characters were presented. The result of this is a very interesting, very complicated, and very mind-boggling web of mystery stories couched in literary language. And I loved it.
Book Details: Trade paperback published by Penguin, from Book Depository