I picked City of Glass off the bookcase because I heard Paul Auster interviewed on Radiolab. In the interview he described getting a phone call, after the novel was published, by a man asking for Quinn (the character in City of Glass who takes on the identity of Paul Auster). It sounded like an intriguing novel, and I decided to give it a chance.
It’s no secret that I’m not a Paul Auster fan. At times, it seems like he is more interested in exploring identity, whether it is that of his characters or overtly himself, instead of telling a complete story. Plot is sacrificed for style, and postmodernism and metafiction shape the writing.
The novel starts with Daniel Quinn receiving a phone call asking for Paul Auster, the detective. Daniel Quinn is a writer whose wife and son died, which has caused him to distance himself from his friends and career. Quinn writes under a pseudonym, William Wilson, about a detective named Max Work. Quinn identifies with Max Work, but only through the separate identity of Wilson, his pseudonym. Without Wilson, he would be unable to Work. After getting the call again, Quinn takes on the case and becomes Paul Auster.
What layer does it add that Paul Auster has written himself into the novel? I like it when Charlie Kaufman wrote himself into Adaptation, so why am I less thrilled when Auster does it? Part of the reason is that it seems like Auster’s motives seem less about fiction and story, and more about ego. He does bring up interesting questions like what is the relationship between the writer and his characters? In the end, that’s what City of Glass is interested in exploring. How we create language, how we tell stories, and who forms whom. Do the characters in Auster’s head define Auster, or does he define the characters?
The other point where I diverge with Auster is how I view the universe. I don’t believe in fate. I don’t believe in magical coincidences being anything other than the play of statistics. I do believe in chance, but I don’t put any extra importance on chance. Someone could win the lottery and their life would change. Is there special meaning in that, or is just that random events happen? A world where events and possibilities are linked by something unseen is a much safer world, but it’s one that ultimately is a false world, another fiction which has been created.
As City of Glass continues, the writer who is many people slowly disintegrates and loses himself in his own fiction. He believes he is the detective and the case is real. He trusts in the circumstances and doesn’t check his facts. Another key question is who is telling the story? Actually, that’s not a question, because we all know that Paul Auster is telling the story, but there’s another narrator toward the end of the novel, a friend of Quinn’s who speaks in the first person. Here we add another layer in the identities of the author.
Lastly, Auster tries to mirror Don Quixote, which is fine, but he explains it all to the reader. Why not let that be present, and if the reader notices the similarities then it adds texture to the story. If the reader doesn’t notice it, there’s no harm done. Instead, it’s spooned into the reader’s mouth through a few pages of clunky exposition.
Overall, I appreciate Auster’s exploration of writing and the relationships between characters and the writer, but feel that some elements that drive a story our sacrificed for style and ego.