Postmodern characteristics in Paul Auster’s City of Glass

Thaís Izidoro Lima1


The following study aims to search and evidence the features of postmodernism on Paul Auster’s City of Glass as well as the way the author deals with the question of identity and reality in the novel. Since the postmodern movement is a theme which will be discussed, a more detailed depiction of this literary style will be taken into consideration, too. Paul Benjamin Auster was born on February 3rd, 1947 in Newark, New Jersey. After graduating in French Literature, Italian and English from Columbia University in 1970, he moved to Paris and lived from the translation of French authors. Back in his country and settled in New York in 1974, he began writing essays, poems and novels of his own. After being rejected by several publishers, his first novel City of Glass was finally issued in 1985. Since then, it has been translated into seventeen different languages so far and has been the subject of many studies, like this one. Paul Auster is hailed as a postmodernist writer in conjunction with other American authors, and in the short time since the publication of The New York Trilogy (1986), in which City of Glass is included, he has become one of America’s most praised novelists. The New Trilogy is a series of three loosely-connected unconventional detective stories. At first sight we believe we are about to read classical detective fiction, following the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. However, instead of being organized around a mystery and a series of clues, the author uses the old techniques of traditional detective form to discuss existential issues and questions of identity, the role of chance, space, coincidence, and


Trabalho de conclusão apresentado à Professora Cecy Barbosa Campos na disciplina Estudos de Literatura Contemporânea de Língua Inglesa no Centro de Ensino Superior de Juiz de Fora.


language. City of Glass does not meet the reader’s expectations about a typical New York ‘city novel’ either. The author built a text for a modified, postmodern cityscape where all objects of the city seem like linguistic codes that need to be deciphered. For this reason, it has been defined as an “anti-detective fiction”, “meta-detective fiction”, and others.


There are different attempts to define the emerging of postmodernism, but many critics assume that it came up in the 1960s in the United States in the course of the publication of Irving Howe’s book The Decline of the New in 1963 (SCHIER apud RUDAT, 2006, p. 4). The term is also used to denote a reaction against the ideas of the modernist movement. As Todd Gitlin states: “Postmodernism is, more than anything else, a reaction to the 1960s. It is post-Vietnam, post-New left, post-hippie, post-Watergate. History was ruptured, passions have been expended, belief has become difficult; heroes have died and been replace by celebrities” (1998, p. 58). Because of that, it is a very complicated matter. We can easily find various disagreements concerning its impact, definition and ideas. Besides, there are many aspects of postmodern principles. For the purpose of this study, we will focus on the postmodern fiction features. Among other characteristics, postmodern fiction elements include intertextuality, the parody, the pastiche, the irony, the metafiction, the temporal distortion and playfulness with the language. All these features can be found in Auster’s works. His works are also famous for their tense inwardness and autobiographical elements. One central theme in City of Glass shows he has been influenced by Lacan’s theory. In short, Lacan declares that we enter the world through the use of language. All the world we see is structured in our mind through language. Auster’s protagonists are often writers who


establish meaning in their lives through writing. In the novel, Quinn/ Auster has to write every detail on his red notebook to make it have sense, to make it be real. The last sentence of the red notebook reads: “What will happen when there are no more pages in the red notebook?” (AUSTER, 2006, p. 129). What happens, as the narrator indicates, is that Quinn/Auster ceases to exist. That’s in fact what seems to be happened, as he disappears. The use of metafictional narrative techniques is equally strong. Let’s face it: the main character in City of Glass, Daniel Quinn, is passionate about detective fiction. He is a pseudonymous mystery writer who uses another name in his works, William Wilson. The solitude of his life (his wife and son are dead and he has no other relatives or friends) and “the enough money for him to live modestly in a small New York apartment” (ibid, p. 3) took him to a routine of walking aimlessly through the streets of the city, as he says, “going wherever his legs happened to take him” (ibid, p. 4). One day this is broken by a wrong number call which gives him the possibility of assuming someone else’s identity, “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of the night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not” (ibid, p. 3). Lonely and bored, Quinn accepts the case in Paul Auster’s place (a private detective). Peter Stillman wants Quinn/Auster to follow his father (also Peter Stillman) in order to ensure that he will not try to kill him. Stillman had locked his son in a dark room for many years, trying to make him speak God’s language, the one spoken before the episode of the Tower of Babel. After following the old Stillman for a considerable amount of time, he concludes there is no purpose in his wanderings and decides to watch the doorway of Stillman’s son. It is relevant to say that he also meets a real Paul Auster in the story, who is also a writer (and here we have an instance of coincidence, another strong aspect in the author’s works). As we can see, the reader has to realize that the real mystery is one of confused character identities and realities. Living like a homeless person with almost no time to sleep


nor money to eat, Quinn loses all the signs of his self: his rented apartment, his outward appearance, his reason to live. When he finds out that everything he had been trying to make sense is out of his grip, he goes to a dark room himself (a cubicle in the Stillman’s empty apartment), and keeps writing in his red notebook until he eventually disappears from the sight of the narrator, a friend of Auster, the writer who lived in Brooklyn. Moreover, it is clear that we deal with an anti-detective fiction. As Rudat explains about the topic, one specific characteristic of this anti-detective fiction is that the reader is led to the anticipation that he is reading a classical detective story but that those expectations are left unfulfilled. Although conventional elements of classical detective fiction are used, like the detective, the crime, the culprit, the victim, and the detection process, the role of the detective has changed. “He has lost his function of an order-establishing centre since he himself and his inner life are not unified” (ibid, p. 5). He no longer investigates the crime; it turns out to be an investigation on his life, his own experiences as well as the search for solving the case turns into a quest for identity. In this chaotic world, fiction seems to be more real than reality. Postmodern fiction is concerned with the question of reality, as it is believed that “real truth is unattainable”. In different parts of the book we can notice that, in addition to his search for identity. In the beginning of the novel Quinn states that he does not “consider himself to be the author of what he wrote”. Although William Wilson is an invention, and had been born within Quinn himself, “he now led an independent life” (ibid, p. 5). Later on, after buying the red notebook, Quinn writes his initials on the first page, D.Q. (for Daniel Quinn) and realizes that it was the first time in more than five years that he had put his own name in one of his notebooks. At the end of his first entry in the red notebook, we can clearly understand this obscurity and difficulty in defining his life, his self, his identity. He can barely identifies the characters involved; their identities are not precise or stable at all, just like his:


“[…] And then, most important of all: to remember who I am. To remember who I am supposed to be. I do not think this is a game. On the other hand, nothing is clear. For example: who are you? And if you think you know, why do you keep lying about it? I have no answer. All I can say is this: listen to me. My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name”. (AUSTER, 2006, p. 40)

Equally important, we can see several intertextual links in the book. As a writer, he understands the concept that works cannot be considered as isolated creations. There is a connection, a reference, a parallel to another work, an extended discussion of a work or the adoption of a style. The story can have a slight resemblance to a traditional detective fiction (even though if follows a completely different path); William Wilson, Quinn’s pseudonym, intentionally makes us think of Allan Poe’s William Wilson; Peter Stillman’s father wanted his son to speak the God’s language (Tower of Babel); and to discuss his theories, he cites Don Quixote, Marco Polo, Vermeer, John Milton, Thomas More, and many others. Last but not least, Paul Auster ironically plays with the catastrophic way son Peter Stillman speaks. Using black humor, as his disability is due to the conditions he lived in as a child, Peter Stillman declares: “This is what is called speaking. I believe that is the term. When words come out, fly into the air, live for a moment, and die. Strange, is it not?” (ibid, p.16). Strange is indeed the fact that, although the character has no cohesion when he speaks, we can understand the message he tries to pass. Paul Auster does that with mastery.


As it could be observed in the analysis done in this study, Paul Auster’s meta-fictional detective story, City of Glass, can be a perfect example of a postmodern fiction novel. As it includes the main elements which characterizes this literary style, “it is very much the quintessential postmodern work of fiction” (GIOIA, 2011). Also, the issues his characters deal with are the classic problems of postmodern criticism, the relationship of a text to reality, the meaning of the world through the use of language (writing) as well as the impossibility of achieving the truth. Martin explains even more in his work Paul Auster’s postmodernity. Exemplifying New York as a postmodern metropolis, Paul Auster questions how the cities have become an


impenetrable and restrictive site of misery and disillusion. He also suggests that the world he inhabits is largely inexplicable. The effects of life in a contemporary and indifferent urban terrain are emphasized (2008, p. 110), that is, the postmodernism dilemma is discussed.

REFERENCES AUSTER, Paul. City of Glass. IN: ___________. The New York Trilogy. New York: Penguin Group, 2006, p. 4-130. BARONE, Dennis. Beyond the red notebook: essays on Paul Auster. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. GIOIA, Ted. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. Available at: <>. Accessed on 3 March, 2011. GITLIN, Todd. Postmodernism: What are they talking about. IN: BERGER, Arthur Asa. The postmodern presence: readings on postmodernism in American culture and society. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, 1998, p. 58-73. MARTIN, Brendan. Paul Auster’s postmodernity. New York, Routledge, 2008. PEARSON, Jakob. My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name: The search for identity in Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Lund University, 2008, 24 pages. RUDAT, Toni. Paul Auster’s City of Glass as a postmodern detective novel. RWTH Aachen University, 2006, 17 pages. WEBSITES:


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