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City of Glass (1985)

by Paul Auster

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The New York Trilogy (1)

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1,3103011,031 (3.73)29
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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English (26)  Danish (1)  Dutch (1)  French (1)  All languages (29)
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A Trilogy

Because City of Glass is the first book in a trilogy, I'm going to write my review in sections, each an impression after completing one book of the three. I'm also going to delay rating the book, since the conclusion of each book is (hopefully) clarified by the contents of the successive books.

Part I
City of Glass is an odd book. A quirky book. If you like Stranger Than Fiction and/or The Eyre Affair, you should enjoy this book.

There is one main character in the book, Daniel Quinn. Or four, because Quinn, the protagonist, is an author using the nom de plume William Wilson to write detective fiction about his private eye Max Work. Quinn receives several late night phone calls for Paul Auster (in true Shoeless Joe and The Razor's Edge fashion, the real author interjects his name into the story), who is some sort of detective. Quinn decides to masquerade as Auster and tail Peter Stillman père to prevent him from killing Peter Stillman fils.

Peter Stillman père is a lunatic. So is fils, although only as a result of père's religiously-influenced actions rather than a defect of his own biology. Fils' wife, Virginia, is a lunatic. Quinn becomes a lunatic. In fact, you will probably feel like a lunatic at the conclusion of the novel, after you have successfully weaved your way through multiple intellectually interesting discussions of religion and literature. You have to sift carefully through these digressions to separate fact from fiction and keep track of the plethora of characters who share names and/or initials.

You are not prepared for City of Glass to end, except through your tactile awareness as you read that you are physically nearing the last page, and through the clever usage of Quinn's red notebook in the storyline. When you finish reading, you want to immediately begin Ghosts, because you are simply left hanging as far as what happened to Quinn, and to Peter Stillman and his wife. You also find yourself wondering who the hell told this story, because after 128 pages of third-person narrative, a first-person narrator suddenly interjects himself into the final few pages to explain the novel's events.

Actually, "I" doesn't explain the events. He doesn't know what became of anyone, and he imparts his lack of knowledge to us in an intriguing, enticing way that makes you want to find out.

Part II
What? The? Hell?

Studs Lonigan managed to show up in all three books of his trilogy. Granted, he is the namesake of the series, so we should expect him. Dunstan Ramsay is present in all three books of the Deptford Trilogy. Nick Jenkins, et al are present for all TWEVLE books in A Dance to the Music of Time.

Disconcertingly, only New York makes a repeat appearance in the second book of this trilogy. Neither Quinn, nor Wilson, nor Work - not even Auster - make even the barest of cameos in Ghosts. So this review will be short, and I fear that my uneasiness with the ending of City of Glass will only increase, that the mystery of what happened to Quinn and the Stillmans will not be answered, and I will have to downgrade this novel, failing as it does to conclude in a satisfying manner.

Part III
Well.

Peter Stillman finally reappears in The Locked Room. The mysterious "I" at the end of the first two novels finds Stillman in Paris, chases him down on foot, and gets beat up by him for his trouble. Quinn also reappears - actually, only makes a non-appearance, in that he can't be located. Neither of these events seems critical to the trilogy's denouement.

"I", it turns out, is the author of all three books (although we are never provided his name). He claims, near the end of The Locked Room, that the stories told in all three novels "are finally the same story". Which feels true in a sense. All three are shrouded in mystery about one or more of the main characters, mysteries that will remain cryptic.

I read an interview with Paul Auster, in which he's questioned on the links between the trilogy and the post-modern movement that was coming to the front at the time the novels were written. Auster downplays the influence of that movement on his work, but you can see the reason for the question if you're familiar with post-modernism or have read Calvino or similar novelists.

City of Glass is a well-written, somewhat entertaining book. I wouldn't include it in my list of must-read books, regardless of whether it's judged on its own merits or as part of the trilogy, because its unresolved plot leaves me unsure of what the book is supposed to be about. ( )
  skavlanj | Aug 22, 2021 |
By far the best of the triliogy. ( )
  GirlMeetsTractor | Mar 22, 2020 |
I'm not sure what I just read, but I definitely liked it. ( )
  bcpeterson727 | Dec 4, 2019 |



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 |

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 |
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» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Auster, Paulprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Frank, Joachim A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Geisen, HerbertEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jääskeläinen, JukkaTranslatorsecondary 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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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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