“We cannot have freedom without wilderness…” – Edward Abbey (1927-1989) described by Douglas Brinkley [includes downloads of free E-BOOKs]


Edward Abbey  (1927-1989)

Edward Abbey pic[2]

By Douglas Brinkley

For more than 30 years Edward Abbey  presented himself as the literary watchdog of the arid American West, writing 8 novels, dozens of travelogues, and hundreds of essays, all aimed at the heart of the industrial complex President Dwight D. Eisenhower had warned about in his surprisingly frank farewell adress of January 17, 1961. Abbey’s motto came from Walt Whitman – “resist much, obey little” – and he was delighted that everything from the FBI to the Sierra Club derided him as a “desert anarchist”. Blessed with a wicked sense of humor and penchant for pranksterism, Abbey carefully cultivated his ever-changing  role as a stubborn provocateur, (…) but he also was always a disciplined writer, even while playing the robust outdoorsman obsessed with stopping the pillage of the American West. “We can have wilderness without freedom’, Abbey often said, ‘but we cannot have freedom without wilderness.”

And he believed it. Throughout the Cold War era, no writer went further to defend the West’s natural places from strip-mining, speed-logging, power plants, oil companies, concrete dams, bombing ranges, and strip malls than the sardonic Edward Abbey.  His entire adult life was devoted to stopping the ‘”Californicating” of the Four Corners states he considered home – Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Abbey was labeled the “Thoreau of the West”, (…) but he rejected out of hand the notion that he was a ‘nature writer’, even if the untamed wilderness did serve as his lifelong muse; instead, he fancied himself an old-fashioned American moralist, a Mencken-esque maverick who kowtowed to no one in his quest to expose others’ treachery, hypocrisy and greed. It was the “moral duty” of a writer, Abbey insisted, to act as social critic of one’s country and culture, and as such to speak for the voiceless.


And so he did, especially in the memorable jeremiad with which he launched America’s “ecodefense” movement and rattle the cages of both Big Industry and Big Government: his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey, born in Pennsylvannia, as an adolescent became disgusted with the big lumber companies’ wanton destruction of the pristine Appalachian woodlands where he grew up hunting squirrels, collecting rocks, and studying plants with fervor, in what he called these ‘glens of mystery and shamanism’. (…) In the summer of 1944, the 17-year-old left Home to seek the America he had heard about in Woody Guthrie songs and Carl Sandburg poems. He hitchhiked to Seattle, tramped down the Pacific Coast to San Francisco, then boxcarred down through the San Joaquin Valley, making his meager keep picking fruit or working in canneries along the way. His hobo holiday of storybook adventure and intoxicating freedom lost its allure only once, when he was arrested for vagrancy in Flagstaff, Arizona, and tossed into jail like the common drunkards already there. It only added to a coming-of-age experience Jack London would have approved of.


“The Monkey Wrench Gang” (Perennial Classics), Abbey’s most famous novel, illustrated by Robert Crumb

Shortly thereafter, the wanderer of the canyons was drafted into the U.S.. Army and spent the last year of World War II serving in Italy. Upon returning home he headed straight for the Land of Enchantment in the form of the University of New Mexico, where he earned a B.A. in philosophy in 1951 and an M.A. in 1956, the latter on a thesis titled “ANARCHISM AND THE MORALITY OF VIOLENCE” in which Abbey concluded that anarchism wasn’t really about military might, as the Bolshevik Revolution had been, but about opposition to, as Leo Tolstoy had put it, “the organized violence of the state”.

A self-styled flute-playing bum wandering his way through coffeehouses and university circles, Abbey was winked at as Albuquerque’s take on the ancient Greek cynic Diogenes, who allegedly abandoned all his possessions to live in a barrel and beg for his keep. Along the same lines, Abbey took to passionately denouncing the spoilers of the West: greedy developers, cattle ranchers, strip-mining outfits, and the Federal Bureau of Land Management. In response, the FBI began monitoring Abbey for possible communist activities – and continued its surveillance of him for the next 37 years

As a professional nose-tweaker, the bane of Abbey’s existence, the purpose of his antigrowth prose and outlaw posture, was to rage against the machine, to become the most ferocious defender of the American West since John Muir. What Abbey wanted to tear down the most was the Glen Canyon Dam, constructed in 1962 just 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon, a 792.000-ton hydraulic monstrosity that had cost U.S. tax-payers $750 million to build. This concrete colossus had stemmed the natural flow of the Colorado River, desecrating the steep walls of the magnificent Glen Canyon that Abbey imagined grander than all the cathedrals in Europe.

It was with a bellyful of bile over Glen Canyon Dam that Abbey began writing The Monkey Wrench Gang in the early 1970s, putting black humor, theater gimmicks, and clever characterizations together to form what would become a lasting cult classic. (…) In what Newsweek approvingly reviewed as an ‘ecological caper’, a gaggle of good-time anarchists mobilize themselves SWAT-like to harass power companies and logging conglomerates. Like their hero Ned Ludd – an early 19th century British weaver who provoked his countrymen to save their jobs by sabotaging machinery in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and to whom Abbey dedicated the novel – the Monkey Wrenchers develop into a charismatic clique of econuisances who pour Karo syrup into bulldozers’ fuel tanks, snip barbed-wire fences, and try to blow up a coal train all in preparation for their real objective: dynamiting Glen Canyon Dam to bits. Their battle cry is ‘Keep It Like It Was!

The Monkey Wrench Gang 
is far more than just a controversial book – it is revolutionary, anarchic, seditious, and, in the wrong hands, dangerous. Although Abbey claimed it was just a work of fiction written to ‘entertain and amuse’, the novel was swiftly embraced by ecoactivists. (…) When asked if he was really advocating blowing up a dam Abbey said, “No”, but added that “if someone else wanted to do it, I’d be there holding a flashlight.” Failing to see his humor, Abbey’s detractors ignored an important point: lovable pranksters in his novel kill only machines, not people, unlike the truly violent protagonists of such fictional works as Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit To Brooklyn.

Abbey’s fictional Monkey Wrenchers considered themselves justified in resorting to whatever means they found necessary to defend the region from ‘deskbound executives’ with their ‘hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by calculators’. It was civil disobedience in the grand tradition of Thoreau.

– Douglas Brinkley



Title: The Monkey Wrench Gang
Author(s): Edward Abbey
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Year: 1992
Language: English Pages: 241
Size: 1 MB (1416590 bytes) Extension: pdf
Download E-book: FREE E-BOOK

Title: Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching [DOWNLOAD]
Author(s): Bill Haywood, Dave Foreman, Edward Abbey
Publisher: Abbzug Press Extension:  pdf
Size: 5 MB (4939841 bytes)
Year: 1993 Edition: 3rd
Language: English Pages: 360
Download e-book:  [DOWNLOAD]

* * * *

By Edward Abbey (Thesis in Philosophy, University of New Mexico, 1959).


A statement of the problem, with definitions of terms to be used and procedures to be followed.

The justification of repudiation of violence, as found in the thought of five major European anarchist writers: Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and Sorel.

The justification of violence as presented by active revolutionaries and sympathizers, with particular reference to the arguments of the Haymarket anarchists, Emma Goldman, and Albert Camus.

A summary of the findings, with further evaluation and final considerations.

* * * * *

You might also like:

BBC Scotland Doc about John Muir

WRENCHED, Bio-doc about Abbey (trailer)


Utopia’s dangers and toils: some remarks on Hawthorne’s “The Blithedale Romance” (1852)

Brook Farm, experimental socialist commune in the 1840s in the U.S.

Brook Farm, a experimental socialist commune in the state of Massachusetts in the 1840s

In 1841, Hawthorne moved to Brook Farm, an experimental socialist community in Massachussets. This Utopian rural commune, connected with the Transcendentalism movement, drew inspiration from the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Fourier, among others. Hawthorne spent six months there, experiencing first-hand this attempt to build an alternative society. Ten years later, in 1851, after he had published The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of The Seven Gables (1851), Hawthorne finally put pen to paper and wrote The Blithedale Romance, a book born out of the Brook Farm experience. It’s not a celebration of triumph: “Brook Farm was no more”, explains Annette Kolodny in her introdution’s to the Penguin Classic’s edition. “Financial difficulties had plagued it from its inception and, after a devastating fire in 1846, the entire experiment was abandoned in the spring of 1847.”

animalfarmEven tough Hawthorne tries to reveal why the experiment failed, he writes about it with no bitter sarcasm nor diminishing its value. This is not a satire like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a viperish tale about Stalinism in the Soviet Union. The Blithedate Romance isn’t trying to critically demolish and ridicule the Brook Farm experiment. In the first pages of the book we can feel how the author affectionaly describes the heroism of those around him, who had turned their backs to a life of confort and indolence, and were now devoted to a collective experience which aimed at the renovation of human society. There’s more than a bunch of drops of Romanticism in his earlier descriptions of the Blithedale farm:

“If ever men might lawfully dream awake, and give utterance to their widest visions, without dread of laughter or scorn on the part of the audience – yes, and speak of earthly happiness, for themselves and mankind, as an object to be hopefully striven for, and probably attained – we, who made that little semi-circle round the blazing fire, were those very men. We had left the rusty iron frame-work of society behind us. We had broken through many hindrances that are powerful enough to keep most people on the weary tread-mill of the established system, even while they feel its irksomeness almost as intolerable as we did. We had stept down from the pulpit; we had flung aside the pen; we had shut up the ledger; we had thrown off that sweet, bewitching, enervating indolence, which is better, after all, than most of the enjoyments within mortal grasp. It was our purpose – a generous one, certainly, and absurd, no doubt, in full proportion with its generosity – to give up whatever we had heretofore attained, for the sake of showing manking the example of a life governed by other than the false and cruel principles, on which human society has all along been based.” (p. 19)

In Hawthorne’s book, Brook Farm appears as an isolated place, in more than one sense: it’s far away from the city and its polluted air, but it’s also disconnected from other similar communes. But, as Kolodny states, in this historical moment – the two decades preceding the Civil War – there was a “proliferation of experimental socialist communities and increasingly organized public activism directed at correcting a host of perceived social ills”:

“The great financial Panic of 1837 had shut banks, closed off credit, and caused many smaller farmers to lose their holdings. In the ensuing depression, which lasted into the 1840s, (…) newly dispossessed rural population moved into cities and factory towns, joining there with recently arrived European immigrants to form an underclass of urban poor. By the 1840s, the sight of small children begging on the streets of major urban centers was no longer unusual. At the same time, a rapidly developing industrialization made possible by a technology forged of steam and iron was changing the face of what had formerly been a self-consciously agrarian nation. While the bulk of the population remained on the land, by the 1840s there was a demonstrable centripetal movement toward the town, the city, and the factory. Although the image had largely been an ilussion, the nation’s image of itself as a land of independent yeoman farmers was quickly being eroded by the reality of a ruthless market economy and the exploitation of wage laborers in the cities and factory towns.

In response, Americans were gripped by a wave of anti-urbanism that lasted until the eve of the Civil War. The unprecedented accumulation of capital in the hands of a powerful few, the new technology, city tenements, overcrowded factory towns, and callous public institutions were all blamed as the causes of urban poverty, increased crime, and general moral decay. Private societies and philanthropic organizations sprang up to attempt the rehabilitation of criminals, the protection of prostitutes, and the care of orphans and paupers – though no group had resources adequate to the task. Those who despaired of such ameliorative measures took upon themselves more ambitious tasks for the reformation of society. All across the country, independent communities – generally organized around agriculture rather than manufacturing – were formed according to various idealistic blueprints for social and economic harmony. Brook Farm was only one such experiment.”  (XII)

Hawthorne doesn’t paint a sociological picture of his epoch in The Blithedale Romance. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, for instance, delves much more deeply into the context of the 1930’s Great Depression than Hawthorne does about the 1837 Panic, the crisis in the years preceding the outbreak of the Civil War. It may be said that Hawthorne writes magnificently about individuals, but only outsketches the traits of societies. He’s a master when delving into the inner secrets of the human heart, and when depicting human relations in all its complexities of feeling, but I couldn’t help but feel that Blithedale Romance could be a more impressive work-of-art if the author had focused a little bit more on sociological insight. Sometimes it seems he’s engaging in a debate with those 19th century doctrines, like that of Fourier, usually labeled Utopic Socialism – but the reader barely gets any information about the general characteristics of Fourier’s ideal society. Fourier seems much more like a punching-bag for Hawthorne to punch an “idealist” he seems to despise. This is also the case in the character of Hollingsworth, the philanthopist, who is described by the narrator, Miles Coverdale, in many portions of the book, with some scorn and scepticism. It reminded me a little bit of the ironic attitude of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville towards Thomas Edison Jr.


A scene of Lars Von Trier’s film “Dogville”: something in the Tomas Edison Jr. and Grace’s relationship resembles the dwellings of Hawthorne’s Zenobia and Holdsworth

Even though Coverdale finds a lot to admire and cherish in Hollingsworth, he’s also descibed as someone who was a victim of

“a stern and dreaful peculiarity, such as could not prove otherwise than pernicious to the happiness of those who should be drawn into too intimate a connection with him. (…) This is always true of those men who have surrendered themselves to an over-ruling purpose. It does not so much impel them from without, nor even operate as a motive power within, but grows incorporate with all that they think and feel, and finally converts them into little else save that one principle. When such begins to be the predicament, it is not cowardice, but wisdom, to avoid these victims. They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.” (pg. 70)

 Nietzsche used to describe fanaticism as some kind of psychic disease that causes its victim to transform one particular point-of-view (among thousands of possible perspectives) in an absolute. Hollingsworth seems like a fanatical figure, wholly devoted to his project of regenerating criminals, and bound to follow his straight path with stubborn inflexibility. Coverdale, the first-person narrator of The Blithedale Romance, kind of sees through the mask of the philanthropist and discovers in his inner core a monstruous egotism. When writing about people like Hollingsworth, he claims:

“They have an idol, to which they consecrate  themselves high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious, and never once seem to suspect – so cunning has the Devil been with them – that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind, they see only benignity and love, is but a spectrum of the very priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness. And the higher and purer the original object, and the more unselfishly it may have been taken up, the slighter is the probabily that they can be led to recognize the process, by which godlike benevolence has been debased into all-devouring egotism.” (pg. 71)

Two women – that it takes the reader some chapters to discover are sisters  – are also focused by Hawthorne’s ouevre: Zenobia and Priscilla. They are the daughters of Mr. Moody in different epochs of his life: Zenobia, a daughter of triumph and wealth; Priscilla, a daughter of decadence and poverty. These two sister reunite at Blithedale Farm: the fragile Priscilla seeking refuge and solace in the bosom of the queen-like powerfulness of Zenobia. Researches and scholars have pointed out that Hawthorne based Zenobia on a real-life figure, Margaret Fuller, a “women’s rights advocate associated with the American transcendentalism movement. She was the first full-time American female book reviewer in journalism. Her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major feminist work in the United States.” (Wikipedia) Hawthorne’s words in describing her are magnificent, full of poetry and admiration, and he suceeds in painting an almost Shakespearean portrait of this woman, part Cleopatra, part Ophelia.

“In fact, so great was her native power and influence, and such seemed the careless purity of her nature, that whatever Zenobia did was generally acknowledged as right for her to do. The world never criticised her so harshly as it does most women who transcend its rules. It almost yielded its assent, when it beheld her stepping out of the common path, and asserting the more extensive privileges of her sex, both theoretically and by her practise. The sphere of ordinary womanhood was felt to be narrower than her development required.” (p. 190)

Hawthorne has a great talent for creating unforgettable female characters, such as The Scarlet Letters’ Hester Prynne, and with Zenobia he does an amazing job also. Hawthorne’s women have some many dimensions, and their hearts are so maze-like and complex, that he seems to broaden the horizons of womanhood. Hawthorne’s is a writer with an unusual power to embrace the human condition. And he’s portrayal of Zenobia shows how much empathy has between the author and its creature. Zenobia is also a sign of the times: in the 1840s, North America was witnessing the rise of Feminism, as Annette Kolodny recalls:

“Adding to the feverish political pitch of the decades preceding the Civil War was the increasing agitation on behalf of the country’s two largest disenfranchised groups: blacks and women. The first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. And, in a last-ditch effort to placate southern secessionists, Congress passed the notorious Compromise of 1850, with its more severe fugitive slave act. Increasingly, antislavery activists and women’s rights advocates made common sense, demanding that the nation live up to its democratic pretensions.” (XII)

In Hawthorne’s America, slavery and the condition of womanhood were still thorns in the so-called American Dream, which this alternative-life communes were struggling to re-build in other basis, more respectful of the dignity of all human beings, and aiming to revert institutions based on opression, forced labor, and misogyny. Zenobia, the hero of The Blithedale Romance, is described as a generous heart, bursting with life. She has the gift of entrancing listeners when she goes on to the stage, like an Shakespearean actress, and enthralls the audience with marvelous tales (such as The Veiled Lady story). Zenobia, tough she seems independent and never acts with servility, falls in the Hollingsworth’s magnetic field. The philanthropist and Zenobia are seem walking hand in hand, whispering to themselves words that the narrator can’t hear, and they even plan to build a nest where to live together. In this relationship seems to lie a seed of catastrophe that, even tough is there right from the start, takes a while to blossom. What starts as romance ends in tragedy. Zenobia is described as someone who had nurtured high hopes, but saw them crumbling down. She aimed really high, and then couln’t stand to discover herself so low. When the clouds of her passion for Hollingsworth are blown away, she attacks him:

“Are you a man? No; but a monster! A cold, heartless, self-beginning and self-ending piece of mechanism! (…) It is all self… nothing but self, self, self! (…) I see it now! I am awake, disenchanted, disenthralled! You have embodied yourself in a project. You are a better masquerader than the witches and gipsies yonder; for your disguise is self-deception.” (p. 218)

After this break-up between Zenobia and Hollingsworth, it seems very unlikely that Blithedale Farm will live on. Hawthorne takes his characters in a journey from hope to despair, from idealistic dreams to rude sorrowful awakening. By the end of the book, Zenobia is

“weary of this place, and sick to death of playing at philanthropy and progress. Of all varieties of mock-life, we have surely blundered into the very emptiest mockery, in our effort to establish the one true system. I have done with it; and Blithedale must find another woman to superintend the laundry… It was, indeed, a foolish dream! Yet it gave us some pleasant summer days, and bright hopes, while they lasted. It can do no more; nor it will avail us to shed tears over a broken bubble.” (p. 227)


The difficulties are tremendous on the path of those who try to build a better society, and high hopes may sometime lead to terrible despair. I wouldn’t say Hawthorne’s book throws buckets of freezing water in the burning hearts of revolutionaries and other people devoted to social change; it just tell a story, magnificently told, which makes it clear how complex and intricate is the effort to bring an Utopia to life. It never seems to be built in reality with all the perfections it had when it was but a dream, a project in the Mind’s phantom-land. Is this a reason to abandon all utopian dreams and just accomodate to what is? That’s not the case, according to great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: he says that each step forward we take, Utopia takes ten steps back, as if it’s running away from us. No matter how many steps in her direction we take, Utopia is always retreating and we can’t fully grasp it. We can’t make it real. Does it mean it’s useless? No, Galeano says: this bettered-world in our horizon has one very important aim, which is exactly providing a motive for our steps. As if it’s pulling us from distant horizons, or as tough we are being propelled to meet it at some Future day that gets constantly postponed. 

* * * * *Nathaniel Hawthorne

“…standing by Zenobia’s grave, I have never since beheld it, but make no question that the grass grew all the better, on that little parallelogram of pasture-land, for the decay of the beautiful woman who slept beneath. How much Nature seems to love us! And how readily, nevertheless, without a sigh or a complaint, she converts us to a meaner purpose, when her highest one – that of conscious, intellectual life, and sensibility – has been untimely baulked! While Zenobia lived, Nature was proud of her, and directed all eyes upon that radiant presence, as her fairest handiwork. Zenobia perished. Will not Nature shed a tear? Ah, no! She adopts the calamity at once into her system, and is just as well pleased, for aught we can see, with the tuft of ranker vegetation that grew out of Zenobia’s heart, as with all the beauty which has bequeathed us no earthly representative, except in this crop of weeds. It is because the spirit is inestimable, that the lifeless body is so little valued.” 

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE, The Blithedale Romance

Facing the Sphinx: a journey through the maze of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy


“There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” – Douglas Adams, English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

It’s plausible that the universe is a riddle that human reason won’t ever be able to completely decipher. Our curiosity and awe in witnessing the hugeness of this “monster of force”, to use Nietzsche’s expression, leads us to formulate questions and to be confronted enigmas that our intelectual powers may be unable to answer. Forever young, the Cosmos Sphinx keeps on throwing mysteries on our awestruck laps, and we toil to uncover solutions or answers, while we’re devoured by the hungry mouth of Time! As Baudelaire wrote in an awesome poem, “The Enemy”:

“Oh misery!—Time devours our lives,
And the enemy black, which consumeth our hearts
On the blood of our bodies, increases and thrives!”

BAUDELAIRE. Les Fleurs Du Mal.

One of these days, wandering through the bookstores of Toronto, I was astonished at the quantity of shelves dedicated to Mystery books and Detective Novels – these genres seems to be editorial booms, many of them surely making into the best-sellers charts. Since I haven’t read much of the new stuff that’s been pouring out, I’ll abstain from judging its quality, and just point out that it got me thinking: what’s the secret of this strong seduction of Mystery? Why do people get so hooked up in crime-solving narratives and tales of suposedly supernatural phenomena? Why did celebrity-writers such as Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie sold millions of copies of the written adventures of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Monsieur Hercule Poirot? Maybe we simply enjoy the amusement of following an investigation, the guessing-game we engaje in as we follow the detective’s path, the thrill of trying to discover whodunit… Besides being great pass-time, these books are for our brains a kind of rewarding cruise: we think about the case in the safety of our killer-proof residences and knowing that’s some attribution of guilty awaits at the narrative’s end.

Maybe the satisfaction is usually great when we arrive at the end of a well-crafted mystery book because some clear answers are brought to us: the identity of the murderer is revealed, the inner motives that explain his behaviour are explained, and Mr. Holmes or Poirot get acclaimed by most readers for their witty brains, smart deductions, wise decisions, proper inferences… We clap our hands and cheer at how smart they are. We celebrate human intelligence’s capacity for solving even the most bloody riddles and for sheding rational light into even the most erratical and irrational behaviour. Most best-selling detective-novels I’ve read never end up with the detective getting stuck, incapable of finding the killer, quitting the case – and maybe that’s because what the reader hungers for, in general, are answers and solutions, and not the anguish of unsolved riddles.

Some of Paul Auster’s characters know a lot about unsolved riddles. They seem to bepaul auster devoured by their un-answered questions. In Ghosts, the second part of The New York Trilogy, Auster creates a character, Gold, that is obsessed by a murder that happened 25 years before, in Philadelphia: the death of a child, whose killer was never discovered (which means: a crime umpunished). Gold is a police coroner that can’t stop thinking about the case, even when’s retired from his public service: as an old man, Gold invests all his time and money to the effort of solving the riddle of the murder, even tough the corpse is already rotten and the skeleton of the victim has been buried for decades. “Gold refuses to accept a world in which the murderer of a child can go unpunished, even if the murderer himself is now dead, and he is willing to sacrifice his own life and happiness to right the wrong.” (p. 140) The mystery lives on, and almost surely Gold dies with his effort to decipher the riddle unrewarded.

That’s one of the traits that make Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy such an original and amazing work-of-art: the author is not interested in handing us all the answers, but rather aims at enhancing our sense of mystery. The detectives, in Auster’s Trilogy, are never role-models or heroes, but people on the verge of insanity. Auster also expands the concept of “detective”: he strains the similarities, for example, between a biographer (someone researching about the life of someone he’s writing about) and a private detective. A biographer of Tchaikovsky, for example, looks a lot like a detective hunting for leads, checking out conspiracy theories, listening to different hypotheses, when they face the tricky riddle posed by the mysterious death of the Russian composer.

Both biographer and detective need, as a part of their job, to understand the Other, to comprehend the life of another person as it’s experienced from the inside. The biographer in The Locked Room has done much more than merely writing about Fanshawne from outside his life, with an outsider point-of-view: he’s a childhood friend of Fanshawne, and after his desapearance from the human-world, he takes Fanshawe place: marries his wife, publishes his books, becomes father to his child. Fanshawe, the great writer, exchanges places with the man who’s to become his biographer. But that’s not enough: there’s still a huge abyss between them. The project of writing a biography on Fanshawe seems like a leaky boat that slowly sinks because of Fanshawe’s mystery remains undeciphered.

But let’s rewind and go back to the beggining: The Trilogy begins invoking the image of the Tower of Babel. Soon, while we trip through New York in the wings of Auster’s prose, we’ll find out that The City That Never Sleeps is considered by the character Peter Stillmann as a “New Babel”. I couldn’t stop my mind from evoking Pieter Bruegel’s painting while I read through Auster’s pages about The Tower Of Babel: a huge construction, inspired by mankind’s megalomania, which never quite works out. Its intended aim – to reach God in the skies, to climb up and break right into Heaven… – is a complete failure. The ideal end and the factual reality tragically split: this attempt to reach celestial harmony ends up revealing only our earthly confusion and miscompreension. When building Babels, mankind seems to discover the frustating truth that up there, no matter how high we rise, we find only indifferent clouds. And nothing to redeem us from our clashing differences. We discover that we speak different languages, and create all sorts of ways to try to make sense out of life, and yet the unsolved riddles of the cosmos remain legion.

* * * * *

In City of Glass, we get acquainted with Quinn after he has lost his wife and child. He’s lonesome, isolated, still struggling with mourning, when the Stillman Case begins. Quinn is a writer of detective novels, who hides behind the name of Willliam Wilson, and has published lots of books filled the adventures of a Sherlock-like character, Max Work. When City of Glass begins, in a sort of kafkian mood, Quinn is about to embark in a real journey as a detective, after years writing his novels mainly resorting to the aid of his imagination.

This won’t be no smooth sailing for Quinn: the case will slowly crush him. Auster seems to be drawing the line between the reality of detective work – sometimes tedious, unrewarding, or even maddening – and the fantasy displayed in mystery novels – which, in general, features glamorous detectives that always end up out-smarting the criminals, solving the puzzle and saving the day. Auster’s Quinn is a dark figure, mournful and confused, and his involvement with the Stillmans is bound to further his hitchkockian descent into a state of vertigo.

City of Glass deals with the consequences of extreme social isolation. The old Peter Stillman, a sort of mad-theologist, seems to have freaked-out after the death of his wife: he locks his 2-year-old son, Peter Jr., from any contact with the world, for nine years, providing him with no education at all. This is how Virginia Stillman describes the whys and hows of Peter Stillman’s relations with his son:

“He began to believe in some of the far-fetched religious ideas he had written about. It made him crazy, absolutely insane. There’s no other way to describe it. He locked Peter in a room in the apartment, covered up the windows, and kept him there for nine years. (…) An entire childhood spent in darkness, isolated from the world, with no human contact except an occasional beating. I live with the results of that experiment, and I can tell you the damage was monstruous.” (p. 27)

kaspar hauser

Auster inserts some digressions into his novel about some episodes in history when similar cases ocurred, referring, for example, to Kaspar Hauser (there’s a great Werner Herzog’s film about it!). In City of Glass, the father – Peter Stillman – who isolates his child from the world, keeps him jailed like a beast in a cage for almost a decade, goes to jail for it. In the present tense of the novel’s beggining, Peter Stillman is about to be let loose again. No one nows how sane (or how insane) he is, nor what might be his intentions toward his traumatized son. Quinn gets messed up with this case merely by chance: a telephone call, due to Mr. Paul Austen, mistankingly had rang in Quinn’s apartment, which had decided to play detective for real (if only as a source of inspiration for his next mystery book, yet to be written).

The problem is: Quinn never embarks on this case with an interest merely professional. He has a wound that hasn’t stopped bleeding yet: the death of his wife and child. To protect the victim of Peter Stilman’s lunacy is for him a matter of intense emotional value. Maybe he’s seduced by the promise of some heroism, some real danger, after years filing commercial literature with imagined dangers and make-believe turmoils. There’s no thrill like living on the edge. Even the fear that Peter Stillman might still harbour in his chest a potential psycopath, maybe a dangerous one, kind of excites Quinn to keep on going, to keep diving deeper in the case. The enigma of the Other becomes an obsession that he can’t shake off. The riddle of that incomprehensible Other – Peter Stilmann – keeps demanding clearance. Peter Stillman functions like some hypnotic Sphynx that keps Quinn in a trance-like state: we’ll sleepwalk through New York’ Babel until he ends up as street-bum. He has been maddened by sorrow. He lost his mind in the maze. He didn’t solve the mystery of existence: he has had his brains fried by it.

Similarly, it can be quite infurianting to reach the last words of The Locked Room and discover that Auster did not provide us satisfactory answers to many of the questions it inevitably raises about his characters. It seems to me that’s a remarkable trait of the whole New York Trilogy. In City of Glass, Quinn dives into his investigation of Peter Stillman just to discover himself sinking into confusion: by the end of the novel, he’s crazier than ever, more isolated than at the start of this journey, less a detective than a tramp bound to end up in some loonies ward.

In Ghosts, the detective never quite gets into the skin of the mysterious writer he’s been hired to keep an eye on: Auster’s Dark Sherlock can spy Mr. Brown with his binoculars, but doesn’t see much besides a man reading Thoreau’s Walden and writing hundreds of pages in his notebook. He has no key to really enter the life experience of the other. The secret of the Other’s heart is a place hardly acessible to someone watching from far away: it demands that intimacy and long-term relationship that no detective, and nearly none biographer, is able to experience with the person he’s supposed to decipher.

The detectives, in Auster’s New York Trilogy, seem to get stuck with the mystery they’re supposed to solve: they frequently get lost in the maze of alterity. They lose certainties about their own identities while obsessing about the task of understanding the other. And then they tend to get crushed by the weight of an unsolved riddle. Auster doesn’t give the reader the satisfaction of clear and un-ambiguous answers: he rather bids us farewell while leaving with us a whole bunch of questions. It’s as if he sees his task as a writer to be the spreading of mystery consciousness, rather than providing us with the humbug comforts of believing we have all the answers.

At the end of The Locked Room, the last third of the trilogy, the reader feels that Fanshawne isn’t someone he can claim to know: he keeps on been a mysterious figure, an enigma in flesh-and-blood, like a sphinx who hasn’t found its Oedipus yet. This seems to be the fate of many of Auster’s characters tumbling through New York’s Babel in this amazingly powerful work-of-art: they seek answers and they drown trying.

In the end, it seems as if the Sphinx has devoured them.