City of Glass by Paul Auster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"This Auster was the first intelligent person he had spoken to in a long time."
Paul Auster's City of Glass (1985) is the first part of his New York Trilogy. I have not yet decided whether I want to read the next installments: while I have found this short novel very readable and extremely clever, it is also quite "empty", in the sense of being not much more than a sort of formal exercise in postmodernist metafiction. I think self-referentiality is great fun, but only when used in moderation. The novel reminds me of a snake that eats its own tail and Mr. Auster goes as far with his metafiction as the snake that manages to swallow all of itself, so that nothing remains.
The protagonist of the story is one Daniel Quinn, a writer, who publishes mystery novels under the pseudonym of William Wilson. The narrator of the stories - written by Quinn under the guise of Wilson - is Max Work, a clever and resourceful private eye and Quinn's favorite character. One night Quinn receives a phone call, and the caller - apparently attempting to call Paul Auster, a famous private detective - wants to secure his help with a difficult case. Despite the obvious case of mistaken identity, Quinn takes the case; after all, he - in a sense - is Max Work and he knows the private-eye business. Quinn's/Auster's task is to protect the client, Peter Stillman, who had been severely harmed in childhood by his father, a professor who used his son for warped psychological and linguistic experiments. The father had been found insane and committed to an institution, but now he is being released and Stillman's wife is afraid that he might harm Peter again.
To me, the main problem of City of Glass is that it wants to be all kinds of great things at the same time, and in attempting to achieve this it does not play any of the roles convincingly enough. Mr. Auster might have undertaken too ambitious a task: combining an interesting mystery with a philosophical discourse on the fluidity of borders between human identities - for instance, what makes me who I am rather than someone else - and between the reality and fiction - the so-called reality may in fact be indistinguishable from a fictional layers in a story. Another major component of the novel is an intertextual thread: the author refers to other literary works, particularly to Cervantes' Don Quixote and works of Edgar Allan Poe. While all this is fantastically interesting, there is just too much of a good thing. Also, on a pure literary storytelling level, I actively dislike the moment when, toward the end of the novel, the author - or, more precisely, whoever we might consider the author - offers a generous helping of clues along with explanations, for instance, the "D.Q." initials. I much prefer when clues speak for themselves.
On the other hand, I truly love one moment in the story. Avoiding spoilers, I will only say that it involves the trajectories of the "mad professor's" walks in the New York City. The passage makes one seriously consider the suspicion shared by some philosophers of science that one can detect any arbitrary pattern in a completely random process, provided that one studies the process infinitely long, and from infinitely many points of view. The references to the Tower of Babel metaphor - ubiquitous in the story - and particularly the concept of dissonance between the language and the reality it describes, are fascinating; but again, why does one need to touch on so many theories of everything in a short novel?
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