Ghosts is the second part of The New York Trilogy. It was published in 1986. It runs to a mere seventy pages in length, so I feel we would be better off calling it a novella. To be clear, when it is referred to as the “second part” of the trilogy, the reader must not think that these are interconnected storylines or continuations of plots/characters.
Its been said that these novels are detective story metafiction. That description is even more accurate of this second part than the first. However, calling it detective fiction conjures up examples of all kinds of gumshoes and private investigators. Literary thinking folks might immediately associate “detective fiction” with Poirot, Holmes, Sam Spade, and Henry Merrivale. None of those associations are incorrect, but the pulp/noir style novel wherein the detective traces the clues and catches a criminal are absent in Auster’s novels.
Again, like in City of Glass, the setting and location is very important to the story. Auster seems to enjoy locating his characters in rooms. A lot of the scenery and storyline are guided by the presence of the four-walled room(s) that the characters inhabit. There is a sense of being enclosed, imprisoned, isolated, and contained.
In this story, Blue is the main character – he is the one that will face the existential crisis and the identity struggles as the story moves along. Without being told why or being given any background, we are told that Blue is hired by White to watch Black. (The characters have colors for surnames. And yes, there is plenty of symbolism and playing with words, too.) Black is staying in Brooklyn Heights on Orange Street. White has rented an apartment for Blue to stay in that is directly across from Black’s location. Blue collects his “detective gear” and goes directly to that location.
The story begins on February 3, 1947. Blue is excited about his job – he settles in to do it to the best of his ability. However, after some time, Blue becomes bored, restless, and then frustrated. The man he has been hired to watch does nothing of interest. Nothing really happens. In fact, most days, it seems that Black is mirroring what Blue does. At one point, Black is found reading a book. Naturally, Blue buys a copy as well. However, it is not until he is thoroughly bored and at wit’s end that Blue decides to read the book.
Blue ends up reading the book twice. Mainly because the first time he felt ripped off and annoyed by it so he decided to re-read it in an effort to see what he had missed. Frankly, I hate the book, so I totally understand Blue’s reaction. The book is Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Most folk have read the book and therefore know it is about a hermit-like existence. Thoreau wrote about his attempt to return to a simple life wherein he could contemplate society, ethics, and the nature of man. It is full of introspection and reverence for nature.
Some vague parallels can be drawn from all of this. As time progresses, Blue loses most of his “life,” thereby returning to a simple existence – contained within the apartment. He loses contact with his girlfriend, his former employer, his personal aspirations, etc. He turns into a brooding, empty shell of his former self.
Now, suddenly, with the world as it were removed from him, with nothing much to see but a vague shadow by the name of Black, he finds himself thinking about things that have never occurred to him before, and this, too, has begun to trouble him. If thinking is perhaps too strong a word at this point, a slightly more modest term – speculation, for example – would not be far from the mark. To speculate, from the Latin speculatus, meaning to spy out, to observe, and linked to the word speculum, meaning mirror or looking glass. For looking out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself. – pg. 171
This is really quite insightful and skillful of Auster. The subtle layering and connections between Walden and mirrors and spying and speculating are well done. An excellent example of metafiction’s capacity to layer reality and characters.
Obviously, there are questions of identity here. Auster really lays these on heavily for the entire piece. Along with Blue, the reader is questioning just WHO IS Black, White, etc. Is this a wild goose chase? WHO IS the one who started this whole circle of identity confusion? These questions are particularly poignant when Blue uses disguises to interact with Black.
Secondly, but quieter, is the process of transference that also runs through the work. Blue kills time by creating possible backstories to the case. Blue also finds that eventually he does not need to constantly watch Black because they have gotten so “close” that he knows (instinctively? internally?) what Black is feeling, doing, thinking.
Well, like most metafiction, the reader is not given detailed and specific answers. The case falls apart (as do the characters) a la PKD. In fact, since PKD, I doubt I have read anything besides Ghosts in which the characters have such an existential crisis which so disassembles them. The lack of information is frustrating because one does want closure and resolution. However, because there are so many questions and layers, the interpretations are endless. For example, I feel like if one were to write a Reader’s Guide to this piece, it would be one possible interpretation after another after another…. After finishing it, one ought to ask: and then what? what was the point?
This novelette can be boring. I mean, ultimately, nothing really happens. We sit alongside the main character in a small apartment for about a year and a half, during which he reads Walden, sometimes paces Black around the city, and otherwise lives a droll and dull routine. In order to appreciate this work, the reader must have some care and interest in the concepts of identity/transference/isolation.
In many ways, Auster took the section of City of Glass wherein Quinn becomes an alley-dwelling ascetic outside of the apartment he was originally hired to conduct surveillance upon, and magnified those elements. It seems as if Auster really wanted to explore just that particular chunk of the first story. And so, in a much shorter fashion, we have this layered noir tale that deconstructs another couple of characters.
Not to say that there are not moments of suspense and eerie weirdness. Nevertheless, those are not breath-taking enough or sustained for this to engender being anything thrilling or exciting. And maybe those feelings of suspense/eeriness are just more transference from reader to character/scene?