The story of a man hired to do a tail job is not particularly creative. It is, indeed, very similar to many detective stories throughout literature. However, the first part of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy is a text with many layers. The story brings questions about identity, the role of chance, the search for meaning and understanding, the production of space, the relation between literature and the world, among many others. There is a controversial classification of this work: detective fiction, metaantidetective fiction, mysteries about mysteries, and so on. It is most commonly seen as postmodern detective fiction.
City of Glass is considered to be Auster’s first novel. He had previously published a book, Squeeze Play, under pseudonym Paul Benjamin (his middle name), and had also spent many years devoted to poetry, which led to the publication of his Selected Poems. But it was only after the appearance of City of Glass that Auster attracted critical attention, which could be considered quite surprising, since the novel had collected seventeen rejections, due to the fact that Auster would steadfastly refuse to make any changes in the manuscript.
The purpose of the presentation performed in class, as well as of this text, is to point out a few characteristics of Auster’s novel which make it different from the classical detective novel. The detective fiction followed a usual pattern: a certain order is broken, and someone must play the role of restoring it by solving a mystery. The investigator has an ambiguous role: on the one hand, he is responsible for maintaining the petit bourgeois security (thus, he is its representative); on the other hand, he is the person who goes through the unknown, the threat to the petit bourgeois order. This is the reason why the investigator, generally unmarried, has some pleasing eccentricities or striking characteristics: he is, in many ways, an outsider.
The usual means of obtaining the truth is through a complex and mysterious process combining intuitive logic, astute observation, and perspicacious inference (Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes could be the paradigm). The crime, normally a murder, is committed in a closed environment: narrowing the space also narrows down the list of possible suspects and the search for clues and evidence. In other words, the social space is subject to Western metaphysics and its impulse to rationally order and control.
The main character of City of
, Daniel Quinn, is passionate for detective fiction: he writes mystery novels. The senselessness of his life (no relatives, friends, nor connections) incites his belief in reason, in revelation of the sense: he is in a quest for stable identity. When his routine of walking aimlessly through the streets of Glass is suddenly broken by a wrong number call, the possibility of assuming someone else’s identity (a certain private eye named Paul Auster) seems to him an interesting opportunity of change. Peter Stillman wants Quinn/Auster to follow his father (also Peter Stillman) in order to ensure that he will not try to harm him. Stillman had locked his son in a dark room for many years, trying to make him speak God’s language, the one spoken before the episode of the New York . Tower of Babel
Quinn accepts the job, but, no matter how hard he tries, he does not see any sense in the wanderings of Stillman senior, until the old man suddenly disappears. Then, Quinn decides to watch the doorway of Stillman’s son for months, living like a homeless person with almost no time to sleep nor money to eat, so that his father would not be able to come into the building without Quinn’s foreknowledge. In this process, Quinn loses all the signs of his self: his rented apartment, his outward appearance, his reason to live. When he finds out that everything he had been trying to make sense is out of his grip, he goes to a dark room himself, and keeps writing in a red notebook, and he eventually disappears from the sight of the narrator, a friend of Auster (who was, in turn, a writer living in
The world does not behave according to the detective logic Quinn so admires. The more he tries to find a meaning in the episode, the more he loses himself. He does not know what Stilmann’s intentions are, what should be considered a clue, neither of whom is telling the truth. The space in which the crime could occur is unlimited: he tries to read the space in which Stillman walks, but has only an illusion of understanding. In fact, Quinn does not know if there is even a crime. And the identity of the characters is not precise or stable at all; Quinn already starts the story with his place very much in question. The title of the story itself uses the metaphor of glass, a symbol of transparency, light and rationality, to explore other qualities of that material, its reflectivity and obscurity, thus giving a new meaning to the story (the confrontation between these characteristics, between modern and postmodern).
Paul Auster uses the old techniques of classical detective fiction, but only to raise issues connected to poststructuralism: mysteries of his own interpretation and his own identity. The Magazine Littéraire was not mistaken when it called him “the most French of American writers”, in its December, 1995 edition. Although the influence of American writers like Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville is evident in his fiction, other influences range from Montaigne, and Pascal to Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, and Beckett. The particular influence of contemporary French postmodern philosophy is plain. City of Glass is the book which showed that Paul Auster is one of the most intelligent and interesting American writers nowadays.