City of Glass by Paul Auster
The first part of Auster’s famous New York Trilogy, City of Glass, is full of riddles. I’m re-reading all three books as part of an Auster revival here on the blog, because the work deserves closer inspection. It’s not an easy book to love. It has dated in parts, with not only Auster himself taking a leading role but also his author wife, the now-almost-as-famous-as-Auster Siri Hustvedt. But these are just little markers of the time, and the time in question is 1985. My edition, a really nice Folio Society omnibus is from 2008. I’m going to review each book as I read it, and then a follow-up piece covering all three.
The more I think about it, the more Auster reminds me of David Lynch. This is a true literary novel in which there is a very loose, ultimately unsatisfying and relatively unimportant plot. As far as it goes, it starts with a phone call, a wrong number. The intended recipient is none other than the famous private investigator, one Paul Auster. The actual receiver is Daniel Quinn, also a successful writer. The call is from one Peter Stillman, asking for help. Quinn, a mystery writer, is easily drawn into Stillman’s world and pretends to be Auster (the detective) sufficiently well that both Stillman and his wife, Virginia, retain him to look into their case.
The case revolves around Stillman’s father, also called Peter, who is about to be released from a mental hospital where he was incarcerated for his incarceration of his son. A nutty professor, he abused Peter in childhood and is still deemed to be a significant threat. The Stillmans tell Quinn when Peter Senior is due to arrive at Grand Central station, and Quinn sets off to research the case and intercept the father.
There are many odd occurrences even by this point, including Virginia Stillman kissing Quinn passionately at the end of their first meeting. But once the father arrives, things decline quickly away from anything like a normal detective-mystery novel. Quinn’s life progressively unravels, and he finds that none of the Stillmans are quite the people they pretended to be. Distraught and confused, Quinn eventually is forced to look up Auster and pay the writer a visit.
Quinn’s journal of these events, kept in a red notebook, are all that remain when Quinn himself disappears. The book is thought-provoking, playing with the idea of a name and what a name really means. It plays with our notions of what reality or ‘real life’ really are, and it of course plays with our notion of what a novel can be.
It’s hard to see this book winning Auster a lot of devoted fans, but it is fun, and it’s short enough and powerful enough to pull the reader along. I worry that the next two books are even further detached from reality, but Auster is good company. It will be an enjoyable ride.