The Book That I Gave Him

— This piece originally appeared on Writers’ Bloc as part of their ‘The Book That…’ series


I bought him New York Trilogy not for the book itself really, but for the memory.

The first time I ever woke up at his apartment I looked out across the building lot to a constellation of windows. He made a joke about the man who was forever at his desk in the distant apartment directly opposite, who was probably gazing in at us. The whole set-up reminded me of the beginning of a Paul Auster story and he didn’t know what that meant but I liked him anyway.

He was the first man I had ever really wanted to give books to because our frames of reference were so different. He wasn’t a writer. He was from a world entirely unlike my own. And I loved that about him.

For some reason he belonged in my mind to the fictional world of Raymond Chandler and Paul Auster maybe even James Ellroy. Because it was the beginning of the second story in New York Trilogy, ‘Ghosts,’ I was thinking of as I lay there that morning with him, a man I already knew I liked too much.

When you give someone a book it’s due usually to a particular passage or image that has remained with you. I hadn’t read Auster in a long time, so when I revisited the Trilogy recently, I found the part that I had thought of that morning; about a detective sent to run surveillance on a man, from an apartment directly across from him. “Parting the curtains of the window, he looks out and sees Black sitting at a table in his room across the street. To the extent that Blue can make out what is happening, he gathers that Black is writing.”

But I had forgotten Auster’s tricks, the way his tales fold in upon themselves, being about the act of writing detective stories rather than any pleasurable resolution to the crime itself. They begin as classic mysteries, but then unravel into something unanswered that continues to haunt you. ‘City of Glass’ is the best example of this tendency: one that begins so promisingly, and then intentionally dissolves.

“The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell,” a fictionalised ‘Paul Auster’ warns at the beginning.

By the end of the first few months he had a pile of novels that he had arranged neatly beside his record player. I had given him a collection of Edgar Allen Poe because he liked dark crime stories. I gave him Hunter S. Thompson for the chaotic language.

In the time we were together none of the spines were ever creased. But he was busy, and the problem with a book – one I felt so keenly with him – is that it cannot be experienced together in the way that his records or films could.

Not long before everything fell apart I noticed that the entire stack of books I had given him had fallen beside the wall. The final time I was in his apartment, the atmosphere didn’t tear around us it just suffocated, his words small shallow cuts like when you run your hands too fast across paper. And as I put on my boots to leave the books were still scattered there. I picked them up, stacked them in a pile and left without saying goodbye.

When I think about it now, it’s an odd collection to give someone really, a strange, postmodern story that’s a deconstruction of the detective genre, a ludicrously ‘meta’ gift for someone unfamiliar with the originals. So my frame of reference was wrong for him too.

“Remembered things,” Paul Auster writes, “have the tendency to subvert the things remembered.” But the memory made me return to Auster’s work, and whenever I think of New York Trilogy now, I think of him and that morning and that view of windows and the possibility of something, and like ‘City of Glass’ none of how it ends matters because the beginning was so good.