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City of Glass by Paul Auster
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City of Glass (1985)

by Paul Auster

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The New York Trilogy (book 1)

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Paul Auster's City of Glass reads like Raymond Chandler on Derrida, that is, a hard-boiled detective novel seasoned with a healthy dose of postmodernist themes, a novel about main character Daniel Quinn as he walks the streets of uptown New York City.

I found the story and writing as compelling as Chandler's The Big Sleep or Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and as thought-provoking as reading an essay by Foucault or Barthes. By way of example, here are three quotes from the novel coupled with key concepts from the postmodern tradition along with my brief commentary.

On the first pages of the novel, the narrator conveys mystery writer Quinn's reflections on William Wilson, his literary pseudonym and Max Work, the detective in his novels. We read, "Over the years, Work had become very close to Quinn. Whereas William Wilson remained an abstract figure for him Work had increasingly come to life. In the triad of selves that Quinn had become, Wilson served as a kind of ventriloquist, Quinn himself was the dummy, and Work was the animated voice that gave purpose to the enterprise." ---------- Michel Foucault completely rejected the idea that a person has one fixed inner self or essence serving them as their individual personal identity. Rather, he saw personal identity as defined by a process of on-going, ever changing dialogue with oneself and others. ---------- And Quinn's interior dialogue with Work and Wilson is just the beginning. As the novels progresses, Quinn takes on a number of other identities.

In his role as hired detective (quite an ironic role since Quinn is a fiction writer and has zero experience as a detective), he goes to Grand Central Station to locate a man by the name of Peter Stillman, the man he will have to tail. This is what we read after Quinn spots his man, "At that moment Quinn allowed himself a glance to Stillman's right, surveying the rest of the crowd to make doubly sure he made no mistakes. What happened then defined explanation. Directly behind Stillman, heaving into view just inches behind his right shoulder, another man stopped . . . His face was the exact twin of Stillman's." ---------- The double, the original and the copy, occupies the postmodernists on a number of levels, including a double reading of any work of literature. Much technical language is employed, but the general idea is we should read a work of fiction the first time through in the conventional, traditional way, enjoying the characters and the story.

Our second reading should be more critical than the first reading we constructed; to be good postmodernists, we should `deconstruct' the text to observe and critically evaluate such things as cultural and social biases and underlying philosophic assumptions. And such a second reading should not only be applied to works of literature but to all our encounters with facets of contemporary mass-duplicated society.

"As for Quinn, it is impossible for me to say where he is now. I have followed the red notebook as closely as I could, and any inaccuracies in the story should be blamed on me." ---------- One key postmodern idea is that a book isn't so much about the world as it is about joining the conversation with other books. ---------- Turns out, the entire story here is a construction/deconstruction/reconstruction of a book: Quinn's red notebook. Life and literature living at the intersection of an ongoing conversation - Quinn's red notebook contains references to many, many other books, including the Diary of Marco Polo, Robinson Caruso, the Bible, Don Quixote and Baudelaire. And the story the narrator relates from Quinn's red notebook is City of Glass by Paul Auster. Again, Raymond Chandler on Derrida.

One final observation. Although no details are given, Quinn tells us right at the outset he has lost his wife and son. Quinn's tragedy coats every page like a kind of film. No matter what form a story takes, modern or postmodern or anything else, tragedy is tragedy and if we empathize with Quinn at all, we feel his pain. Some things never change.


New York City author Paul Auster, Born 1947

“Would it be possible, he wondered, to stand up before the world and with the utmost conviction spew out lies and nonsense? To say that windmills were knights, that a barber’s basin was a helmet, that puppets were real people? Would it be possible to persuade others to agree with what he said, even though they did not believe him? In other words, to what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? To any extent. For the proof is that we still read the book. It remains highly amusing to us. And that’s finally all anyone wants out of a book—to be amused.”
― Paul Auster, City of Glass ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
I have a feeling Paul Auster (the novelist) and I would not agree on very much. I also have a feeling that, in spite of this novel's postmodern (post-existentialist?) structure, Auster most definitely made this book up as he went along (although I suppose one could argue that was in keeping with the novel's overall themes?).

Working within the broad framework of the "hard-boiled" detective novel, the real mystery Auster is investigating is that of inherent meaning: if we start to deconstruct the words, the very language that we use, what remains? How much of our society is made up of the language we use, and what does this imply for our identities, for our characteristics and relationships? And what does this then mean for the novelist?

Auster accomplishes this (if he does accomplish this) by utilising the basic building blocks of detective fiction. The nutty coincidences of the works of Raymond Chandler are parodied and recycled as our detective - Daniel Quinn/Paul Auster - comes to doubt the nature of the coincidences, but also realises that the coincidences will happen anyway. I haven't read any other Auster novels, so I'm not sure if he really champions the idea of fate and kismet, but I don't think that is the point of this novel at all. The ramblings of Paul Auster, Sr. take the central concept about words and apply them to people: can we take people at face value? Or WORD value? By the climax of the book, Quinn has taken on all the characteristics of the hard-boiled detective - vigilance, asceticism, forethought - at the expense of logic and reason. Much of the work details the geography of New York City down to the most minute element: another literalisation of how words contribute to our perception of the world.

I can't claim to have fully grasped "City of Glass". Auster's prose has an eerie beauty, and he shades in particularly well the more broken characters haunting Peter Stillman's Manhattan. Yet Auster's prose is also very talky, prioritising concepts and philosophy over plot - deliberately, yes, but occasionally exhausting over the course of the novel.

Ultimately, the most resonant moment in the book must be the the fictional novelist Auster's conspiracy theory about Cervantes' "Don Quixote". What we have here is author Paul Auster telling novelist Paul Auster's tale of Daniel Quinn (posing as detective Paul Auster) - at some points recounting the tale of Peter Stillman! Worlds within worlds, mirrors within mirrors, words within words. I'm not entirely sure what it means, but there's something about Auster's reflective world that has drawn me in. I think I shall return again. ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 30, 2018 |

Paul Auster's City of Glass (1987) reads like Raymond Chandler on Derrida, that is, a hard-boiled detective novel seasoned with a healthy dose of postmodernist themes, a novel about main character Daniel Quinn as he walks the streets of uptown New York City. I found the story and writing as compelling as Chandler's The Big Sleep or Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and as thought-provoking as reading an essay by Foucault or Barthes. By way of example, here are three quotes from the novel coupled with key concepts from the postmodern tradition along with my brief commentary.

On the first pages of the novel, the narrator conveys mystery writer Quinn's reflections on William Wilson, his literary pseudonym and Max Work, the detective in his novels. We read, "Over the years, Work had become very close to Quinn. Whereas William Wilson remained an abstract figure for him Work had increasingly come to life. In the triad of selves that Quinn had become, Wilson served as a kind of ventriloquist, Quinn himself was the dummy, and Work was the animated voice that gave purpose to the enterprise." ---------- Michel Foucault completely rejected the idea that a person has one fixed inner self or essence serving them as their individual personal identity. Rather, he saw personal identity as defined by a process of on-going, ever changing dialogue with oneself and others. ---------- And Quinn's interior dialogue with Work and Wilson is just the beginning. As the novels progresses, Quinn takes on a number of other identities.

In his role as hired detective (quite an ironic role since Quinn is a fiction writer and has zero experience as a detective), he goes to Grand Central Station to locate a man by the name of Peter Stillman, the man he will have to tail. This is what we read after Quinn spots his man, "At that moment Quinn allowed himself a glance to Stillman's right, surveying the rest of the crowd to make doubly sure he made no mistakes. What happened then defined explanation. Directly behind Stillman, heaving into view just inches behind his right shoulder, another man stopped . . . His face was the exact twin of Stillman's." ---------- The double, the original and the copy, occupies the postmodernists on a number of levels, including a double reading of any work of literature. Much technical language is employed, but the general idea is we should read a work of fiction the first time through in the conventional, traditional way, enjoying the characters and the story. Our second reading should be more critical than the first reading we constructed; to be good postmodernists, we should `deconstruct' the text to observe and critically evaluate such things as cultural and social biases and underlying philosophic assumptions. And such a second reading should not only be applied to works of literature but to all our encounters with facets of contemporary mass-duplicated society.

"As for Quinn, it is impossible for me to say where he is now. I have followed the red notebook as closely as I could, and any inaccuracies in the story should be blamed on me." ---------- One key postmodern idea is that a book isn't so much about the world as it is about joining the conversation with other books. ---------- Turns out, the entire story here is a construction/deconstruction/reconstruction of a book: Quinn's red notebook. Life and literature living at the intersection of an ongoing conversation - Quinn's red notebook contains references to many, many other books, including the Diary of Marco Polo, Robinson Caruso, the Bible, Don Quixote and Baudelaire. And the story the narrator relates from Quinn's red notebook is City of Glass by Paul Auster.

One final observation. Although no details are given, Quinn tells us right at the outset he has lost his wife and son. Quinn's tragedy coats every page like a kind of film. No matter what form a story takes, modern or postmodern or anything else, tragedy is tragedy and if we empathize with Quinn at all, we feel his pain. Some things never change.
( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
READ IN ENGLISH

I don't know what to say about this story. I liked the beginning and was intrigued by the story, but at times and especially near the end more often than not I was thinking, stop this post-modernistic nonsense and try and complete the story.
I felt I was left with more questions than usual... ( )
  Floratina | May 26, 2016 |
Six-word review: Does anyone here tell the truth?

Extended review:

I really don't know how to rate this. I think it was probably good, but I didn't like it: not because it was weird but because the plot, if it was a plot, changed direction so many times, and in the end I was left only with questions.

In general I try hard to rate on what I consider goodness (well-done-ness) and not personal preference (how much I liked it), but in this case I don't feel qualified to separate them. The best I can do in the direction of objectivity is to say that the writing is very able and that I believe the author is in control of his material; it came out the way he meant it to.

This means that the puzzlement I feel is due to the author's strengths and not his weaknesses. He chose to be mystifying, chose to play with perception and delusion, chose to leave the reader wondering. It's not from any flaw in construction or delivery. I just don't like being strung along like that, feeling as if I'd invested my attention and didn't get the payoff I was expecting. Clearly I was not the intended audience.

I think I'll leave it at that. ( )
3 vote Meredy | Mar 3, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Auster, PaulAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Geisen, HerbertEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
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"For our words no longer correspond to the world. When things were whole, we felt confident that our words could express them. But little by little these things have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos. And yet our words have remained the same. They have not adapted themselves to the new reality. Hence, every time we try to speak of what we see, we speak falsely, distorting the very thing we are trying to represent."
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This work is the original prose novel City of Glass by Paul Auster. Please do not combine it with the comic adaptation.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140097317, Paperback)

Nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Mystery of the Year, City of Glass inaugurates an intriguing New York Trilogy of novels that The Washington Post Book World has classified as "post-existentialist private eye...It's as if Kafka has gotten hooked on the gumshoe game and penned his own ever-spiraling version." As a result of a strange phone call in the middle of the night, Quinn, a writer of detective stories, becomes enmeshed in a case more puzzling than any he might have written. Written with hallucinatory clarity, City of Glass combines dark humor with Hitchcock-like suspense.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:45 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A late-night phone call from a stranger involves Quinn, a mystery writer, in a baffling murder case stranger than his novels.

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