Book Review: City of Glass: A Postmodern Detective Novella

A review of City of Glass, the first novella in Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, first published in the December 2010 issue of The Banyan Trees.

The New York Trilogy book cover

Do we know New York? Of course we do! There’s no city more familiar to the english-speaking youngsters of Chennai city than New York city. After all, we adore sitcoms with a NYC setting: Seinfeld, Friends, How I Met Your Mother

Do we know the Detective Novel? Of course we do! There’s no genre of fiction more familiar to the english-speaking youngsters of Chennai city than the Detective Novel. After all, we read Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew as kids and then moved on to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. We adore Agatha Christie!

What Paul Auster does in the City of Glass is take two ordinary things: a well-known city and a well-known genre of fiction. He merges them into one extraordinary, multilayered narrative in which identities (as represented by the writer, the detective, the client, the antagonist, the story, and the city) clash, mix, and merge. As a final twist, Auster subverts the The Pledge, The Turn, The Prestige structure of a Magic trick (for he definitely is a Magician) by doing away with the prestige entirely. What turns extraordinary, remains extraordinary. The dazzling turn, more than compensates for this.

The premise of the novella (the first in the collective novel known as The New York Trilogy) is quite simple. As the narrator points out, it begins with a phone call, a wrong number to be precise. Daniel Quinn, a New York city based writer of detective novels, receives a mysterious phone call one night asking for Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency. He cuts the call after making the necessary clarifications. The calls, though, persist night after night until eventually Quinn decides to take on the persona of Paul Auster, the private detective, out of sheer curiosity. Thus it is, that he takes up the case of the Stillmans. At the heart of the case is the curious story of Mr. Stillman, a Columbia university professor of religion, who had kept his son Peter locked up in a single room for nine years with hopes of revealing God’s language. Peter Stillman and his wife Virginia hire Quinn (posing as Auster) to shadow Stillman senior who is about to return to New York after having spent years in a mental asylum. Quinn sets his sights on the senior Stillman, for the first time, at the Grand Central Station where he arrives.

As Stillman reached the threshold of the station, he put his bag down once again and paused. At that moment Quinn allowed himself a glance to Stillman’s right, surveying the rest of the crowd to be doubly sure he had made no mistakes. What happened then defied explanation. Directly behind Stillman, heaving into view just inches behind his right shoulder, another man stopped, took a lighter out of his pocket, and lit a cigarette. His face was the exact twin of Stillman’s.

From this extraordinary point onwards, the narrative steers clear of not only the beaten pathways of detective pot-boilers, but also those of sophisticated literary mysteries. It morphs, by turns, into linguistic and existential conundrums, and profound meditations on the nature of language, writing and identity.

Profoundness is a definite characteristic of this story, but so is sheer tongue-in-cheek postmodern playfulness: the husband, an ex-policeman, of the Stillmans’ housekeeper is named Michael Saavedra. And most memorable of all there’s a speculative discussion of Don Quixote between the “real” Paul Auster, who happens to be a writer, and Daniel Quinn. As Daniel Quinn, the objective writer-turned-detective, turns into an increasingly disoriented participant of a game that is beyond his control, the dreamscape like topology of New York city morphs as well. In the end we are left with more questions than answers. The questions multiply the possibilities of the narrative, thus making it infinite. As I said, there is no prestige. What turns extraordinary, remains extraordinary. But the turn is dazzling and in Auster’s magical prose makes for a rich, allusive narrative.

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