An examination of Paul Auster’s story, “City of Glass”.
In this essay, I will discuss how postmodernism causes problems in the notion of reality being expressed. I will be using extracts from Paul Auster’s City Of Glass to support this theory. I hope to show how Auster suggests that the words he uses to build his fictional world are unable to effectively express the things and the people within.
Postmodernism as a term has, itself, caused a great deal of debate as to its exact definition. In Studying The Novel, we read;
‘As Andreas Huyssen puts it, “One critic’s postmodernism is another critic’s modernism. A sharper critique comes from John Frow who, in a chapter of his book . . .entitled “What Was Postmodernism?” argues that the concept of postmodernism is incoherent. He gives two reasons to back up this claim: first that those who use the term give no examples of what or who falls into the category, or alternatively, one person’s examples are quite different from another’s. Second because there is no agreement concerning the period associated with the term.
This uncertainty accentuates the problems of the idea that reality can be represented by postmodernism, since reality is being represented by a concept that has not yet been accurately defined. City Of Glass is defined as an “anti-detective” novel or a “metaphysical thriller”. Its central character, Daniel Quinn, begins by adopting the persona of Paul Auster and becomes involved in what, at first, appears to be a straightforward task associated with the “private detective” genre of fiction writing. But even before he meets the client, Peter Stillman, Quinn is pondering the term,
‘Private eye. The term held a triple meaning for Quinn. Not only was it the letter “i” standing for “investigator”, it was “I” in the upper-case, the tiny life-bud
buried in the body of the breathing self. At the same time it was also the physical eye of the writer.’
It could also be suggested that the letter “i” has a fourth meaning. On page 72 of City Of Glass,
The last two letters remained – the “E” and the “L”. Quinn’s mind dispersed . . . struggling through his torpor one last time, he told himself that “El” was the
ancient Hebrew for God.
Perhaps Auster is implying that the letters “p” and “i” form the word “pi”. Pi is the mathematical expression that can be calculated to infinity and therefore has no final value. In the same way, Auster may be inferring that words have no final value. As Jacques Derrida has stated in his theory of “difference” – words change their meaning as time passes and a final or fixed value will always be deferred. This being the case, the very words that construct Paul Auster’s New York and his characters are unstable, in a constant state of flux. Derrida’s theory of “difference” is presented in a conversation between Professor Stillman and Quinn, Stillman remarks, “”Most people don”t pay attention to such things. They think of words as stones, as great immovable objects with no life, as monads that never change.”’
Quinn replies, ““Stones can change. They can be worn away by wind or water.”
One of the ways this instability is reflected in City Of Glass is the central character’s constantly changing names. At the beginning he is Daniel Quinn with the pen-name of William Wilson. He changes his name to Paul Auster to speak to Peter Stillman, then from Quinn to Henry Dark to Peter Stillman in his conversations with Professor Stillman. At the conclusion of Quinn’s meeting with Peter Stillman, the latter states, “”I am Peter Stillman.
That is not my real name. Thank you very much”. The first entry in his notebook after meeting Stillman, Quinn finishes, “My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name.” Perhaps Auster is trying to address the issue of how people will react differently according to their situations.
For example, stand-up comedians who appear, on stage, to be out-going and confident, are sometimes found, in their personal lives, to be shy and insecure.
This uncertainty of identity in City Of Glass, is reflected when,
‘Auster saw the yo-yo in his hand and said, “I see you’ve already met. Daniel.” he said to the boy, “This is Daniel “ And then to Quinn, with that same ironic smile, “Daniel, this is Daniel.” The boy burst out laughing and said, “Everybody’s Daniel!” “That’s right.” said Quinn, “I’m you and you’re me”.
Auster seems to be suggesting that his son, Daniel is also Daniel Quinn. Auster the writer is creator of both his son and Quinn. Paradoxically, Quinn the writer created Paul Auster, each is the father of the other. However the Paul Auster created by Quinn is head of a detective agency and therefore a potentially different Paul Auster. In Possible Worlds in Literary Theory we read,
However radical the degree of relativism one might adopt regarding the status of fiction vis a vis reality, it cannot change the fact that Natasha in War And Peace with whom we share the most intimate thoughts is a non-existent, whereas a Natasha in the remotest Russian village . . . does exist.
In other words, a fictional person, Natasha, no matter how much we know about her, still
does not exist. A real Natasha, no matter how little we know of her, still exists.
In City Of Glass, Quinn is Paul Auster making Auster a non-existent since Quinn is only a fictional character. However Quinn as Auster meets Paul Auster and we are presented with a conundrum. Paul Auster does not exist and Paul Auster does exist.
Since his meeting with Peter Stillman, Quinn takes an interest in other cases akin to Stillman’s and explores the history of experiments involving the isolation of children to establish whether they would develop a “natural” language. That is, words constructed without the aid of contact with other people. Auster is challenging the notion that the language he uses is adequate to construct his fictional world and people.
Before he first sees Professor Stillman at the Grand Central Station, Quinn is sold a pen by a man who is unable to hear or speak. A note says “LEARN TO SPEAK TO YOUR FRIENDS” and refers to a label attached to the pen which shows all the hand positions used in sign language to form the letters of the alphabet. In a later conversation with Professor Stillman, the professor tells Quinn,
“You see, the world is in fragments sir. And it’s my job to put it back together again . . . if I can lay the foundation, other hands can do the work of restoration
This is the second time a reference to the use of hands to mend a fragmented world has been made. That is to say, the hand-positions of sign language to form letters must first be learned. These newly learned letters will then be used to form new words to more accurately describe objects such as a broken umbrella. As the professor remarks to Quinn,
“it might have once been an umbrella, but now it has changed to something else. The word, however, has remained the same. Therefore it can no longer express the thing, it is imprecise; it is false.”
A note instructing the buyer of the pen to “learn to speak to your friends” indicates that Quinn has not yet learned to communicate properly, even with his friends.
Quinn sits beside a young woman reading one of his novels.
“Quinn had often imagined this situation: the sudden unexpected pleasure of encountering one of his readers. He had even imagined the conversation that would follow: he, suavely diffident as the stranger praised the book.”
However to his chagrin, “The girl shrugged once again, “It passes the time, I guess. Anyway, it’s no big deal. It’s just a book. Now Quinn is faced with the fact that, for all his efforts in producing the novel, one of his readers has dismissed it as “no big deal”.
This would appear to be the pivotal point of the story. Quinn is sold a pen with which he will record Professor Stillman’s movements, by a man who cannot hear or speak. A girl has dismissed his work up to that time as “no big deal”. Now Quinn is about to begin following the professor and it would seem, give up his previous work as a writer of detective fiction. Now, with a new pen suggesting he should find a different way of learning letters; he will also be beginning a new detective work from a metaphysical point of view.
As Quinn follows Stillman, he becomes aware of a pattern of movement that will eventually spell the word “Tower Of Babel”. This is a twofold challenge of language in that the Tower of Babel is, according to the old testament, the place where a once monolingual people where punished by making them multilingual. It is possible that the professor is comparing New York to Babel, especially as New York is famed for having one of the tallest man-made structures in the world, The Empire State Building. The second challenge is that the Professor uses no spoken or written words to communicate the words, “Tower Of Babel”, just his movements around New York.
Towards the end of the story, Quinn seems to experience a regression. Slowly he eats less and less food, devoting more time to writing in his red notebook. He remembers being pulled from his mother’s womb, does not move from the floor of his apartment and the food he does eat seems to arrive from nowhere. Perhaps as a child would, at first, take it for granted that its parents would provide it with sustenance. At the very end, we are told by an unknown and unnamed person that tells us, “At this point the story grows obscure. The information runs out.”
To summarize, the exact definition of postmodernism is a vexed subject among critics, philosophers and theorists. An uncertain term increases the problem of trying to express the notion of reality. In City Of Glass, Paul Auster explores the history of experimental work to attempt to discover a “natural” language. He speculates on the possible comparison of New York to Old Testament Babel. At the story’s finish we find Quinn slowly regressing to his childhood, and then another unnamed person concludes the novel.
Throughout City Of Glass Paul Auster uses inter textual references, nonsense words, a character with many names, sign language and a man’s movements around New York to imply that spoken and written words alone are not enough for the buildings and characters he wishes to construct.