|About the Book|
Paul Austers `Ghosts (1983) reads like the square root of a hard-boiled detective noir novel, an off-the-wall, bizarre mystery where there is no crime and the whodunit is replaced by a meditation on the nature of identity. Here are the opening few line: First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown. Brown broke him in, Brown taught him the ropes, and when Brown grew old, Blue took over. Blue is a detective and it is Blue we follow on every page of this sparse (less than 100 pages) novel set in 1947 New York City. Actually, this is the 2nd of the authors `The New York Trilogy, bookended by `City of Glass and `The Locked Room.To gain an initial feel for the novel, please go to Youtube and watch a snippet of one of those 1940s black-and-white noir films, like The Naked City. You will see lots of hard-talking tough guys in gray suits and gray hats running around city streets socking one another in the jaw and plugging one another with bullets -- plenty of action to be sure. And thats exactly the point - a world chock-full of police, detectives, crooks and dames is a world of action.But what happens when one of those 1940s detectives is put on a case where all action is stripped away, when the only thing the detective has to do is look out his apartment window and keep an eye on a man across the street in another apartment sitting at his desk reading or writing? This is exactly what happens in Ghosts. So, rather than providing a more detailed synopsis of the story (actually, there is some action and interaction), I will cite several of Blues musing along with my brief comments on Blues relationship to literary and artistic creation:Until now, Blue has not had much chance for sitting still, and this new idleness has left him at something of a loss. For the first time in his life, he finds that he has been thrown back on himself, with nothing to grab hold of, nothing to distinguish one moment from the next. He has never given much through to the world inside him, and through he always knew it was there, it has remained an unknown quantity, unexplored and therefore dark, even to himself. --------- So, for the first time in his life, Blue is given a taste of silence and solitude, the prime experience of someone who is a writer.More than just helping to pass the time, he discovers that making up stories can be a pleasure in itself. ---------- Removed from the world of action and building on his experience of silence and solitude, Blue is also given a hint of what it might mean to be a fiction writer, one who sits in isolation, exploring the inner world of imagination in order to create stories. And, on the topic of stories, the unnamed narrator conveys how Blue reflects on many stories, including the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, stories from the lives of Walk Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, and several stories Blue reads in his all-time favorite magazine: True Detective. Austers short novel is teaming with stories.For the first time in his experience of writing reports, he discovers that words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say. ---------- Blue discerns it is possible that words cannot adequately articulate the depth and full range of human experience. And what is true of a detectives report is truer for works of great literature: there is a rich, vital, vibrant world of feeling and imagination beyond the confines of words and language.Finally mustering the courage to act, Blue reaches into his bag of disguises and casts about for a new identity. After dismissing several possibilities, he settles on an old man who used to beg on the corner of his neighborhood when he was a bog - a local character by the name of Jimmy Rose - and decks himself out in the garb of tramphood . . . ---------- During the course of the novel, Blue take on a number of different identities and with each new persona he experiences life with a kind of immediacy and intensity. Spending a measure of his creative life as a screenwriter and director, Paul Auster undoubtedly had many encounters with actors thriving on their roles, energized and invigorated as they performed for the camera. I suspect Auster enjoyed placing his detective main character in the role of actor at various points.Ghosts can be read as a prompt to question how identity is molded by literature and the arts. How dependent are we on stories for an understanding of who we are? In what ways do the arts influence and expand our sense of self? Do we escape purposelessness and boredom by participating in the imaginative worlds of art and literature?