Tag Archives: City of Glass

‘City of Glass’ (Auster | Karasik | Mazzucchelli | Spiegelman, 1994/2004)

25 Jun

I came to the graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass in the spring of this year.  My capstone class had completed Timbuktu and Mr. Vertigo and I was dying to read more Auster.  However, this interest in his back pages was tempered by the amount of work that lay before me in the weeks before graduation.  One of my professors, knowing my keen interest in Auster’s work, loaned me a slim graphic novel that he assured me was taken faithfully from the first book in the New York Trilogy. 

At this point, I was all honey badger* about the printed matter being discussed in the aforementioned capstone class.  I carried the volume up to the sixth floor of Healey Library, where I sat at a small table overlooking the harbor.  Between gasps of dialogue and character and small, crosshatched frames, I gazed out at the city skyline blanketed under fog.

Reading the City of Glass graphic novel so soon after its prose counterpart, I’m struck by how well David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik captured the spirit of Auster’s work.  While the exclusion of a few paragraphs here and there caused me some pain, the novel exists for me to read them.  Mazzucchelli and Karasik particularly did a great job of making visual the theme of coincidence that runs through the book.  (In particular, pay attention to the girl Quinn meets who’s reading his book…does she makes a second appearance towards the end?)  I also found satisfying the places in which a drawing by Daniel’s son Peter crops up in the frame.  It serves as a visual depiction of the ways in which Peter Quinn and his death haunts his father.

The pages in which the illustrators work through Peter Stillman’s monologue are particularly striking.  The thought bubbles that emerge from (among other sources) cave paintings and inkwells emphasize the primal qualities of Stillman’s story, and make it visually engaging.

In one of his interviews (which escapes me at the moment), Auster spoke of others’ experiences attempting to adapt City of Glass into a film.  While his unorthodox and engaging dismantling of the noir genre would seem to lend itself well to a feature, the story’s stream-of-consciousness structure and interior monologues would make it a challenge to adapt.  Mazzucchelli and Karasik did a great job of bringing the book to another kind of page.  I’d love to see them make this into an animated feature film in the style of Renaissance.

 * = link NSFW, but you knew that.  “Honey badger don’t care.  Honey badger don’t give a shit!”  Also, hi Avak!

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“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.

“William Wilson”

8 Jun

In the first chapter of City of Glass, Paul Auster writes about protagonist Daniel Quinn’s double life.  After Quinn’s wife and son meet a tragic end, he starts writing crime fiction under the name William Wilson.  The alliterative appellation, with its bitten-off syllables and rhythmic stresses, seems at first like the kind of name a pulp writer would choose for a nom de crime.  This book is by Paul Auster, though, a writer with more on his mind than mere authenticity.

William Wilson is also the title character in a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.  The boarding-school story of an inveterate gambler and his slow dissolution is less well-known than Poe’s other stories, but works with themes familiar to the writer, and is worth tracking down.

Poe’s use of the double and doppelganger has had a clear influence on Auster’s work, particularly in City of Glass.  Our protagonist has enrolled in school at the same time as a more popular boy with the same name.  The pair look enough alike that they could be brothers, and in addition to sharing a name, they also share a birthdate.  (For you Poe trainspotters in the audience, the day listed as their natal date is the same as Poe’s himself.)

Throughout his life, the narrator William Wilson is persecuted by his more popular double.  Poe works interestingly with the unreliable narrator trope.  Wilson frequently tells us that he is a great gambler and is able to fleece a nobleman, only to be shown up by his doppelganger, who exposes him as a cheat.  Is the “better” William Wilson a whispering conscience to our narrator’s debauchery?  The ending of the story, a climactic confrontation between the two men, certainly points in that direction.

After reading a fair amount of contemporary literature, I had to recalibrate my brain to fully comprehend the Romantic writing style of Poe’s short story.  On my first reading I found myself skimming through what I initially saw as the overwrought paragraphs to get to the plot.  The verbose approach to the subject matter serves the material well.  Poe is able to create a mood of suspense through the character’s frequent equivocations and his attempts to rationalize his behavior.  The deliberate writing style traces a guilty character’s frame of mind, and rations out the information Poe thinks we need to keep the readers hanging and trying to figure out what happens next.

Auster would not merely lift the character’s much-hated plebian name as Daniel Quinn’s pen name.  The theme of doubles echoes throughout City of Glass, most notably in the presence of “Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency”.  Daniel Quinn’s three personae – his own self, his pen name (and his tough-talking protagonist in William Wilson’s novels), and the role of “Detective Paul Auster” that he assumes – also speaks to the dual William Wilsons.

An annotated e-text of the story is available at Poe Stories.  There’s also a free audio version of the story on YouTube.

Auster’s fellow New Jerseyans, the Smithereens, recorded a song called “William Wilson” that likewise drew inspiration from the Poe story.  The song appears on their 1990 album 11.