This is possibly the best novel I've read this year, certainly the best in a long time. The first of a trilogy, I look forward to the next two parts of it. Auster's book was written in the mid-1980s. It's hard for me to believe that it is about thirty years old and that it took that long for me to get to. Novels like this were works written in the 1950s back in the mid-1980s, and they were classics of a sort. It's hard to believe this would now be essentially a classic, in that sense, tested by time.
The novel is about a writer--a writer on many different levels. Daniel Quinn is a the main character. He writes detective novels under the name William Wilson (the name of a baseball player for the Mets, and the name, I believe, of a character in a Poe story about a man with multiple identities). Wilson in turn writes about the detective Max Work (maximum work of literature?). Quinn receives an anonymous call. The caller is asking for Paul Auster, a private detective.
After a couple of calls, Quinn decides to pose as Auster. The woman on the line is looking for help protecting a man Peter Stillman from his father of the same name. The father experimented on Stillman at a young age, similar to experiments keeping young children in a room without language to see what would happen. The abuse did no good for the son, and the father, who was imprisoned for his evil doings, is fresh out of jail. The son needs protection.
Quinn's job is to offer said protection. He embarks on following Stillman Sr. around. Stillman has a double, and Quinn has to choose which one is real. Stillman walks his days away in patterns that suggest letters that suggest words. What does it all mean?
Quinn eventually finds the real Paul Auster, who is a writer, not a detective. The two sort of collude for a bit, but not well and not for long. And Quinn in turn finds his musings growing progressively shorter and more meaningless, as Stillman's whereabouts get harder to trace.
Language is a major theme of this book, as is identity. Even the body seems a major element of it--nudity is stressed quite a bit early on. It's as if the body is all that is real, as if language is a slippery attempt to define the meaning of who we are, to give those bodies identity.