Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy

Shortly after the economic Golden Age had drawn to a close in the mid ’70s and modernity started to take on what Zygmunt Bauman described as its unstable, liquid form, Paul Auster wrote New York Trilogy — a collection of stories that reflected this changed world, and transformed expectations of what high-concept literature and detective fiction might deliver. Rather than writing about hard-boiled pros investigating some external menace, Auster’s amateur detectives are introspective narrators: the cases under investigation are not crimes but our certitude about life and what we think we know.

Originally released as three separate books in 1985 and 1986, the stories — City of GlassGhosts and The Locked Room — were well received critically, but Auster himself was not so sure about their literary value, likening their popularity to Lou Reed’s hackneyed “Walk on the Wild Side” or Godard’s Breathless, sacred cows not particularly loved by their creators. But despite Auster’s disparagement of his own work, there’s no do doubt it signalled an interesting direction in the evolution of literature

However, there are two things Auster vehemently denies about New York Trilogy. The first is that these are detective stories; in spite of the fact that two of the stories’ protagonists are engaged in paid detective work, and the third is involved in an investigation. The second is that this is postmodern literature. And looking at the form a bit closer, I might be inclined to believe him.

The detective novel is a genre type not typically associated with philosophical and psycho-social investigations. A Victorian-era or mid-century pulp fiction novel tends to operate like a pencil sharpener; the detective shaving away the superfluous elements of the story until the sharp nub of facts are revealed.

By way of contrast, Auster’s amateur detectives telescope out. The closer they try to get to their object of contemplation the more it recedes into the distance or becomes a meaningless blur.

The facts of the matter remain elusive; to a large degree because the protagonist is clouded in mystery, to themselves and the reader; until their motives and sense of self are obliterated. The subject of investigation disappears and suddenly they become the object. The world understood as a log of facts or meaningful patterns fails; language is ambiguous; the “I” is subverted.

For this reason many people consider New York Trilogy to be a piece of postmodern fiction. Yes, theorists like Kuhn, Derrida and Foucault can spring to mind when reading, but it’s better understood as a piece of literary modernism. Gogol, Dostoevsky, Beckett, Breton are maybe better guides for what’s going on here.

It might almost be described as nihilistic if it weren’t so funny. The way Auster’s purposefully earnest and faux naïve writing style interacts with the genre had me in silent convulsions a few times on the train. The fulsome exposition of genre conventions is often hilarious, for example when the protagonist of the second story, Blue (an incognito detective), waxes boyish when speaking to a detective, Black, in a bar:

Cracking cases, living by your wits, seducing women, pumping guys full of lead — God, there’s a lot to be said for it.

Blue is being paid to watch Black, who in turn is watching someone else to no purpose, like an Escher drawing — or images reflected forever and leading to nowhere.

This disorientation continues in the other stories. In City of Glass, author Dan Quinn is drawn into a detective case before mentally unravelling as Auster investigates religio-philosophical concerns (man and the fall) and literary interests (Don QuixoteParadise Lost). The Locked Room, written in first person, follows an unknown narrator as he inhabits the life of a former high-school friend and literary talent who everyone else thinks is dead.

The stories are self-reflexive, but not in an unbearable, Gravity’s Rainbow sort of way — a book whose architecture is designed to irritate. These stories fulfill an admirable and sometimes scarce literary function: the entertainment of the reader.

* originally published in Crikey 3 Aug, 2018


AFL, socialism or death!: why AFL’s socialist policies have been a success

As socialism was teetering on its last legs in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, the AFL was just joining the show.  The introduction of the salary cap in 1985 and reverse order picks and the national draft in 1986 were getting underway as Gorbachev started to introduce Perestroika to the Soviet Union.

Starting at opposite ends, both were heading toward a mixed economy girded by socialist principles. One never quite made it.

Today, only the most rusted-on, cold-war warriors would maintain that the AFL’s socialistic model has failed.  Not only has the competition evened out — with Adrian Anderson recently reminding us that every club has made it to a Preliminary Final since 2000 – indeed, the general level has been raised.

What is strange though are the bed-fellows that the AFL’s socialist model has attracted to its’ side.


When the AFL conceded this year to the AFL Players Association (PA) a limited form of free agency — to take effect after eight years of service — it was the arch individualist and champion of political liberalism in 1990s Victoria, Jeff Kennett, who took up the cudgels and warned of the dangers of opening up the game to player autonomy and money chasing.

“You wait ‘til you see how this bloody plays out,” warned Jeff. “Where (will) that lead? The weaker clubs are going to get weaker.” While the AFL used the cover of free agency being a component of other professional sports, Jeff wasn’t having a bar of it.

“They forget one very important point, all the codes they are quoting are commercial operations, they are owned by individuals, or groups of people or businesses,” opined Kennett.

“AFL football in Australia is a community game, owned by the community, and the AFL’s proposal puts our unique game at risk… of commercial failure by some clubs.”

The weak getting weaker through free trade? Community? We can’t imagine the Iron Lady — who once famously insisted “there is no such thing as society”, just a multitude of free-floating individuals — would have had much time for her erstwhile, Antipodean acolyte’s views.

Then again, Jeff was never a big fan of organized employees either, of which the PA is one. Perhaps it was the idea of the tail wagging the dog, that rankled Jeff’s managerial feathers.  Headmasterly Jeff seemed to have shaded out individualist Jeff is an internal power struggle.

Or maybe we have to take him on his word, that Jeff simply had a road to Damascus conversion, a pragmatic volte-face when thinking of how free agency might actually create an intractable division of super-rich clubs versus the stragglers: a farcical situation that grips the English Premier League, where clubs become ego extensions of uber rich billionaires.

But Jeff surely isn’t Robinson Crusoe in his ambivalence toward the benefits of football socialism.  The ski-bunnies and cognac swilling patricians that crowd out the Melbourne Football Club must be battling their own inner demons.

For a club that for a period refused to accept working-men in their team, the spectre of socialism presumably elicits a grave internal sense of confliction.

The salary cap, the priority picks — the whole concept of positive discrimination and welfare, which now puts Melbourne in an enviable position for a top 4 assault in the next little while — must be instilling the most exquisite, bittersweet stirrings.  The red and the blue are coming together, and must be sending a few purple.  But like the post GFC (that is Global Financial Crisis) bail-outs for incompetent and irresponsible company directors, hand-outs are something you evidently can learn to deal with.

For me, Jeff and the Melbourne Football Club toffee apples get off a little too lightly.  A recanting of free-market voodoo economics and an admission that socialism rocks football and their personal worlds must be a pre-condition of any future assistance.

Just say it Jeff, just say there is such a thing as society, that a helping hand is always better than an iron fist, and a little bit of socialism is no bad thing.  This individual would pay a fair market price to get a ringside seat to that admission.

*originally appearing in Crikey