Three clever and deliberately unsatisfying mysteries are linked by their recurrent themes and character names. They are unsatisfying because their puzzles are not solved nor solvable, nor even completely comprehensible, though the speculations they provoke are entertaining. Each story features a male protagonist intent on spying upon another male, so intent and so obsessively that he loses all sense of himself as an independent being, imagining himself as that other. And each story is, ultimately, about the impossibility of any author’s winning the struggle to write the subjective truth — perhaps because there is no single, definitive subjective truth, since subjects, that is, individual thinking beings, contain many and often contradictory thoughts, beliefs and purposes.
In “City of Glass,” a once-promising writer, widowed and depressed after abandoning serious literary ambitions and now writing pot-boiling pseudonymous detective novels, accepts an unexpected commission to work as a private detective under the name “Paul Auster”; in the course of his investigations, he meets the real Paul Auster and discusses with him this Auster’s amusing and absurdly complicated theory of the composition of “Don Quijote” and also researches writings on the Tower of Babel, Milton, the histories of feral children reared without speech, and much else relating to language and writing. He of course fails to solve the mystery or fulfill his charge of protecting a young man who may or may not be threatened by his mad but brilliant father, but allows his obsession with his investigation to lead him to complete madness.
In “Ghosts” the point-of-view character is not a writer but a professional private eye, assigned to spy on someone who may be a writer and who may, in the end, be himself. This is the strangest and least successful of the trilogy, but it is thankfully also the briefest.
Then in “The Locked Room,” another writer finds himself investigating the life and writings of a supposedly-dead childhood friend who, the protagonist fears, may have been a much greater writer than he. The failed novelist of the first story, “The City of Glass,” makes a shadow appearance in that his name is attached to another frustrated detective.
Reading Auster, you find yourself in the company of someone who is very clever and very widely read and thus able to keep you entertained by anecdotes and surprising references, even though in the end none of what he says seems terribly important, though it may occur from time to time that some important idea pokes its nose above the screen of feints and misleading allusions.