A review of City of Glass by Paul Auster

There is a play on names that runs through this book like a fugue. The putative writer of the book Paul Auster will prove to be another, a writer whose name is not given. Peter is the name of Quinn’s dead son. Both Stillmans, father and son, are also named Peter. Quinn’s pseudonym of William Wilson is admirably tricky since William Wilson was the eponymous hero of Edgar Allan Poe’s story about a split personality.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

City of Glass
by Paul Auster
Penguin Books
1987, ISBN 0-1400-9751-7, $14.00, 203 pages

Paul Auster has written many books, fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and translations from the French of both poetry and prose. City of Glass is the first novel in The New York Trilogy.

A man name Daniel Quinn lives alone in New York. He was married once and had a child. Both mother and son are dead. His life amounts to careful strategies to evade grief. One evasion is his authorship of mystery novels. He writes these under the pseudonym of William Wilson to mark a separation from his earlier works, which he considers to have been more respectable. The change occurred on the death of his wife and child.

On a succession of evenings, late at night, the phone rings. The caller wants to talk to the private detective Paul Auster. Quinn tries to tell the caller that he has the wrong number but the voice is too fixated to accept any answer. At last, Quinn agrees to meet his caller and assumes the identity of Paul Auster. He is let into an apartment by a sexy young woman, Virginia Stillman, who introduces Quinn to her husband. Peter Stillman is a young man greatly afflicted by his past and the abuse of a brutal father who shut him away from human society in pursuit of a demented theory about language which his isolated son was to verify. Peter believes that his father, released from an asylum for the criminally insane, will try to kill him. Quinn as Auster undertakes to protect him.

There is a play on names that runs through this book like a fugue. The putative writer of the book Paul Auster will prove to be another, a writer whose name is not given. Peter is the name of Quinn’s dead son. Both Stillmans, father and son, are also named Peter. Quinn’s pseudonym of William Wilson is admirably tricky since William Wilson was the eponymous hero of Edgar Allan Poe’s story about a split personality.

The older Stillman’s theories about language reinforce and expand the play with names. He theorized that the language of Adam had a unique relationship with reality. Words in the Adamic language were words of power that gave the speaker command over the things named. This essentially magic power was lost at the Tower of Babel when God punished the presumption of man by the confusion of tongues. Stillman’s delusion is that he can restore this lost language of Adam.

Quinn begins to trail Stillman, but days go by and although Stillman walks indefatigably through a restricted area of the city, he goes nowhere near his son. Quinn, in daily contact with Virginia Stillman, verifies that he has also neither written nor called. As a last resort, he decides to talk to Stillman. He finds that Stillman does not recognize him from one time to another. He introduces himself first as Quinn and then as Henry Dark, a name that Stillman made up in a semi-scholarly paper. At the last meeting between them, Quinn claims to be Peter Stillman, the old man’s son. Stillman shows no animus. In fact, he is solicitous and convincingly paternal.

When Stillman then disappears, Quinn panics. He seeks the help of Paul Auster, but finds that Auster is not a detective, merely a writer. He is not even, it proves, the author of City of Glass. It is another and this writer will disapprove of Auster’s bad behavior towards Quinn.

The book now shifts from the form of a detective mystery to that of a psychological thriller as Quinn acts out his guilt over the disappearance of Stillman which also includes his unresolved grief over the death of his wife and child. Taken out of himself by his involvement with the Stillman case, he is both vulnerable and destructible.

As a balancing act, City of Glass is a stunning performance, and Auster succeeds in producing unflagging interest and movement. The quality of this writer’s work deserves the attention of every discriminating reader.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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