Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy: A Synopsis
It was a miscalculation that started it, the alarm clock ringing in the dead of night. A bit later, when my head had cleared up, I would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was a bit later. In the beginning, there was simply the ringing thing and the instinctive drive to smash it against the floor.
I had gone to bed at one, and had set the clock to wake me at half past two for the meeting I was to have on the following afternoon. And there was I: all alone in the dark, ears full of ringing, head empty of thoughts. I realize now this was the second biggest mistake in my life. Yet, of all the mistakes I made from beginning to end, it was no worse than any other.
After some groping about in the darkness, I switched off the alarm and on the night lamp. I blinked at the twenty past two on the dial and tried to recall the date. The previous day had been the 28th, so it was the 29th. Or perhaps the 1st. I could never figure out whether – or why – the 2000 should be a leap year. It is in such cases that I most obsessively feel nothing is certain, everything has been reduced to chance, a nightmare of numbers and probabilities.
In any case, getting back to sleep was out of the question. In my dream, I had fired a blank pistol into some sweaty wall, groaning and moaning like a nightmare creature. I definitely preferred to remain awake.
Was I to get up then?
I reached under the pillow and produced a pair of dice. My head was clearing already. I shook my hand and let the dice out. They yielded seven, but it could have been anything, so I took a deck of cards. The Joker I drew certainly made me feel better. I consulted my tarot pack next, and got the Grim Reaper. His skeletal countenance seemed to speak an elusive suggestion. I took the set of bones out of their ivory box and spilled them on the floor. Then I stared at the pattern.
It was no use. You can have a thousand facts and extract no meaning from them; what did I expect from several wretched bones?
In desperation, I grabbed a random book from the nearby shelf and opened it to a random page. I skimmed through the hundreds of names and numbers but, just as I had feared, they revealed nothing, as though all the randomness and illogicality of the world were embodied there. Then my eye caught a piece of paper that had been lying underneath, and I tossed aside the telephone book. The writing (in red ink) seemed familiar, and yet the sentences contradicted one another, each canceling the previous one. My brow furrowed…
Ah, yes. The first draft of what you are reading now.
An odd premonition made me glance at the mirror. The glass surface was completely impenetrable, an opaque block of darkness that thwarted every hope of reflection. I wondered who had inverted it.
Suddenly I felt the urge to escape from my confines, to become my own man again, alone and free, roaming around the world in search of my lost identity – or at least of someone to kill. I got up.
(Perhaps this was my second biggest mistake.)
On my quitting the room, I tripped over a tray of food someone had put in front of the door. As I fell down, I heard a clicking sound, and I realized that I had left the key inside. Then I felt everything going dark inside me…
Needless to say, from this moment on, we know nothing.
This piece was conceived as a response to some of the obsessive ideas in Auster’s New York Trilogy, particularly those concerning chance and randomness (which I find unconvincing in the context of so meticulously structured texts) or darkness. By poking fun at them, I have relieved whatever irritation or depression I felt while reading the novels.
For the purposes of parody the piece represents a compilation of phrases and sentences borrowed directly from the original* and placed within the most literal (hence self-undermining) context I could imagine – for instance, the telephone book that yields no meaning. The only major exception to this approach is the paragraph beginning with “I reached…”, which pays an independent tribute to the concept of chance. On this and other occasions I have reinforced the comical effect by exaggeration as well as abrupt, absurd turns (cf. the final sequence).
I suppose the last line requires some clarification. It reads, “Needless to say, from this moment on, we know nothing.” I chose to write it black-on-black: first, to steer clear of all Black-and-White charades; and second, in an attempt to reproduce the lucidity that existed in my mind when I finished with the last page of The Locked Room.
*Auster’s readers should be able to trace fifteen references to their specific sources, and there are at least five more statements I (mis-)quoted from memory, without locating the exact passages in the original.