“City of Glass”

15 Jun

City of Glass was the first work of fiction Paul Auster had published. At first, the book suggests the structure of a murder mystery or a noir – onetime poet/current pulp novelist Daniel Quinn gets a series of anguished phone calls looking for “Detective Paul Auster, of the Auster Detective Agency” in the middle of the night or at other inconvenient moments. (Like that much-quoted, unpleasant paragraph in which the phone rings while Quinn is on the john, but I digress.) Finally, Quinn takes a cue from Max Work, the protagonist in the detective series he writes (under the Poe-derived pseud “William Wilson”) and meets with the aggrieved party.

Auster grounds Quinn in a heightened sense of solitude. In the first two pages, he reveals that Quinn’s wife and son died at a young age from an unspoken tragedy. After their deaths, he walks away from his original literary vocation, cuts ties to his friends, and turns out a pulpy detective novel every year. This lifestyle seems close to the life Auster may have imagined for himself in the wake of his divorce.

Quinn’s meeting with Peter Stillman and his wife, Virginia, both follows the noir narrative that Auster has established and carries it further afield. Stillman contacts “Auster” (the detective) to seek protection from his abusive father, who is about to be released from a court-ordered mental hospital. Peter Stillman the elder was a biblical scholar whose abusive behavior towards his son rendered him unable to communicate properly. Stillman Jr’s long monologue in his curious internal language takes up several pages and requires multiple readings in order to properly understand it. While the younger Stillman’s narrative complicates the story, “Auster”’s heated exchange with femme fatale Virginia could have been lifted from The Postman Always Rings Twice. (In the graphic novel adaptation, Virginia bears a striking resemblance to classic film siren Myrna Loy.)

One of the things I appreciated about Daniel Quinn, detective, was that his methods of investigating the case reminded me of an undergrad writing a paper. He follows his quarry, Peter Stillman Sr., and he stays in contact with the younger Stillmans, but he also reads through and makes an attempt at understanding the Biblical texts Stillman wrote.

Many readers think the wheels fell off the narrative towards the end. Because the book was initially marketed as detective fiction, I suspect some of its audience expected that the case would be solved in the concluding pages. Instead, we learn second-hand of the Stillmans’ fate from a phone conversation Quinn had with the writer Paul Auster. (Many thesis papers have been written about the destabilized identity prevalent in The New York Trilogy.)

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Auster’s work is the way that he is able to emotionally engage his readers while drawing on postmodern techniques. His use of pastiche, subversion of genre, and play with identity don’t prevent us from engaging with his protagonist. The end of the book was one of the most devastating things I’d read in a long while.

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