Introduction to Paul Auster’s City of Glass

As we continue to investigate postmodern fiction, the relation of postmodern texts to prior literary traditions, and the relation of the fiction that we read to contemporary culture, we might—through Auster’s detective fictions—also question the relation of mystery and detection to story itself as Auster obviously does.  How does City of Glass—Indeed all three novels in The New York Trilogy—focus our attention on the nature of narrative? On the relation of postmodern inquiry to narrative meaning? On the relation of fiction to the “real”?

To assist you, I am providing a brief overview of City of Glass. This summary/commentary is meant to provoke questions about the novel and Auster’s motivations. It is not intended to be complete or all-inclusive.

City of Glass follows the exploits of Daniel Quinn, who lost his wife and three-year old son five years before the novel’s opening. Quinn used to be a mainstream novelist and translator of French manuscripts, principally poetry. Since his wife’s and son’s deaths, however, he has taken to writing mysteries under the pen name of William Wilson. Initially, he told his friends that he was living off an inheritance from his wife; however, his morose and bizarre behaviors have driven all friends away, so excuses are no longer needed. Quinn tends to view Wilson as a separate and independent person, and Work—the protagonist of his detective novels—as a private eye whom he admires and wants to emulate. Ironically, through late night telephone calls from Peter Stillman to Quinn’s apartment, Quinn becomes confused with a P.I. named Paul Auster and assumes Auster’s identity in order to have a chance at becoming like his hero, his creation—Work.

So. A character in a novel identifies with the characters that he creates in his own fiction and as a result assumes the identity of another character whom he later meets and who happens to be the author of the novel in which he is a character. This in itself establishes Glass as a self-reflexive work, but Auster doesn’t stop there.

In the novel’s opening paragraph, we are told that “The question is the story itself” and not what it means. This stated “thesis” focuses our attention on the story as story, on the nature of narrative, just as the proleptic statement, “He would conclude that nothing was real except chance” (3) establishes an omniscient narrator who approximates in many ways the anticipatory retrospection of 1st person narration. Is this, then, essentially Paul Auster’s story, himself abstracted to the 3rd person omniscient? Does this pattern of interactions question the nature of narration and speculate on the role of the author, his or her presence or absence in a fiction?

Further self-reflexivity is evidenced through Quinn’s comments on the nature of a good mystery in which “the writer and the detective are interchangeable” (9), and in his assessment of mystery as the paradigm for all narratives,  “seething with possibilities” (9). The narrator’s discourse on the ”I” of P.I. further expands this connection.

Auster also comments on (through Quinn’s perceptions) the nature of memory, which tends to subvert the things remembered. Fiction, especially retrospective fiction, after all, is memory, and memory lacks certainty, rendering it central to the postmodern condition.