Book Review: City of Glass by Paul Auster (1985)
I chose this book as part of my detective noir research for the noir chapters in the novel I’ve been working on the past two years. It was also described as a postmodern mind-screw, which is usually my jam, and this one did not disappoint me one bit. It leans more postmodern than detective noir, but that works in its favor. Using POV tricks and authorial reticence to make a banal mystery more disorienting is an excellent pairing. Author Paul Auster manages to capture the reader’s attention and hold it while bewildering that attention, raising more questions than answers throughout the main plot until the bizarre ending throws everything into even more confusion and wonder. Pretty much the way a postmodern novel should end. It’s one of those you’ll love it or hate it kind of books, but I loved it.
Normally, the number of characters in a novel is quantifiable by simply counting them. Not so much this time. City of Glass takes heavy inspiration from Don Quixote (arguably the greatest work of literature ever produced in any language ever, quote me on that if you like), so it employs some of the tropes invented by that earlier work. There are also some hints of H.P. Lovecraft/The King in Yellow madness thrown in which creates a wonderfully unreliable narrator. What is real and what is not quickly becomes a bigger mystery than the mystery of the plot.
Daniel Quinn: Our main POV lens is Daniel Quinn, who shares his initials with Don Quixote. He has suffered the tragic death of his wife and son, which gives him an apathetic outlook on life and his writing career. Like Quixote, Quinn gives up his normal occupation as a detective mystery writer and assumes the role of an actual detective upon being mistaken for someone else (Paul Auster, who shares his name with the novel’s author, but we’ll get to that). He takes his new false identity, which is suspiciously similar to his detective character Max Work, increasingly seriously as the plot unfolds. His ending state is abysmal, so don’t expect a positive resolution. This character’s mental journey gives the novel its power.
Peter Stillman: Peter seeks to hire Paul Auster, the renowned private detective (who may not exist, but again we’ll get to that), to protect him from his father. He believes his father means to kill him after being released from prison. Peter’s father subjected him to a language experiment as a child, locking him in a lightless room with minimal human interaction for over a decade to learn if a primal, God-given language exists in humans. Peter suffers from heavy mental and speech impairment, only able to speak at all because of extensive rehabilitation. Peter is wealthy, though, so he can pay for Quinn’s help. He is one of the more enigmatic elements, making little sense in his long speech early in the novel and disappearing without explanation later in the plot.
Virginia Stillman: Virginia is Peter Stillman’s wife and caretaker. She informs Quinn of the situation and acts as a bizarre, but largely absent, love interest for Quinn. A criticism that could be raised of this book is her minimal role and “screen time.” However, this heightens Quinn’s descent into madness because straightforward facts are continuously replaced with Quinn’s interpretation of facts. In the end, her appearance in the novel being so short serves the narrative and POV tricks well.
Mr. Stillman: a brilliant scholar who becomes obsessed with discovering a Godlike, inborn language in humans. He imprisons his son to see if a natural language develops without human contact. His experiment is presumed to end in failure, although Peter does develop a nonsensical language of his own to fill that communicative need. He is imprisoned as a result of his experimentation. He appears briefly in the plot, but then disappears as many other characters do. He walks routes through the city that Quinn interprets as spelling out letters of a message.
Paul Auster: a character with the same name as the novel’s author appears, calling authorship into question much like Don Quixote. He entertains Quinn’s detective mission and theories but is unable to meaningfully help. He doesn’t know of the renowned detective who shares his name, and he is the only Paul Auster in the phonebook, which calls Peter and Virginia Stillman’s story into question.
I wanted to limit this review to 1000 words, but that’s not happening. Strap in, because this plot is about as convoluted as any Christopher Nolan film you could care to name.
Quinn gets a mysterious phone call asking for Paul Auster, renowned detective. He eventually decides to assume Auster’s identity and become the detective from his novels, Max Work. He visits Peter Stillman, speaking to Virginia first, then listening to a monologue from Peter for hours. This monologue details the horrors that Peter’s father subjected him to and showcases Peter’s mental damage. Virginia kisses Quinn for no reason, and off he goes to protect Peter from his recently released father.
At the train station he sees two men who look identical, follows one briefly, then decides to double-back and follow the other. He watches and follows this man, discovering what appear to be letters in the routes of his walks around the city. Quinn believes he is discovering hints at what Peter’s father intends to do.
Quinn eventually speaks to Peter’s father several times, assuming a new identity at times to test if Mr. Stillman remembers him. Mr. Stillman appears to not recognize Quinn, but drops hints that he is aware of being followed. Mr. Stillman then vanishes, leaving no more leads to follow.
Quinn then searches for the real Paul Auster and finds one (who is a writer, wouldn’t ya know it). This Auster has no knowledge of a private detective with the same name. He sympathizes with Quinn and Peter but is unable to assist further.
Our hero then decides to take up residence outside Peter’s house and keep constant vigilance, living in an alleyway and dumpster-diving for food or shelter. He stays in this state for a few months, essentially becoming homeless. He eventually tries to cash the check that Virginia had initially given him as payment, but it bounces. He returns to his apartment, but his things are gone and someone else is renting the place.
Quinn returns to Peter Stillman’s place and finds it open and completely vacant. This calls the reality of Quinn’s narrative into question. He finds a small, dark room inside, ostensibly where Peter Stillman spends his uncontrollable mental episodes reliving his childhood imprisonment. He lays down in the darkness and succumbs to something, be it his grief, confusion, lack of identity, or simple apathy at having all of his efforts become nothing.
In the end, the reader can be certain of nothing. It could all be true or some hallucination Quinn is experiencing and anything in between. It’s kinda up to the reader.
This is a tough one, so I’ll probably miss a lot having only read the novel once. It’s only 200-ish pages, so a reread will be quick. There are themes of loss and pain in searching for unattainable knowledge throughout. More subtle themes arise in Quinn’s inability or refusal to lead a life of formulaic writing after his losses. His search for adventure and a meaningful life lead to income loss and homelessness, so that feels like a criticism of the state of the arts or highlighting the impracticality of idealistic living.
Obsession is another theme that permeates the work. Mr. Stillman’s obsession with the primal language of God, Quinn’s obsession with the case and Virginia as a love interest that never materializes, and I believe even the reader’s obsession with finding answers all play a major role in the novel’s mysterious impact. All of these wind up unattainable in the end, so perhaps a cautionary tale about seeking ultimate truth in a world where everything may be relative or subjective. Again, squarely in the postmodernist tradition.
Mistaken or unclear identity is a major one, which makes the allusions to Don Quixote more apropos. It’s not clear who Paul Auster really is in this novel. The author? A writer caught up in a crazy man’s search for meaning? A private detective? Is Quinn seeking a life that cannot exist in this world the same way that Don Quixote wanted to be a chivalrous knight? I’m sure there’s more, but I’m already 40% over length.
City of Glass surprised me in such a pleasant way. It gave me food for thought and left me wondering if we’re not all just seeking something we can never attain or understand. It opens the reader up to a realm of imagination and mystery that other novels can’t quite reach. Fun fact: this novel was published the year I was born, so I may be a little biased there too. All in all, a great read that I highly recommend. It’s quick, does it’s job expertly, then vanishes just like all the characters in Quinn’s life. A masterful work.