City of Glass: Not My Real Name

New York TrilogyTitle: City of Glass (Book One of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1982

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

“My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name.”

Oh, postmodernism, you are so simultaneously inarticulate and hyperarticulate.

City of Glass is the first book of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which seem to be concerned with postmodernism and mysteries; I’ll be writing about the other two shortly.  The story is told from the point of view of Daniel Quinn, a mystery writer who decides to try his hand at actual detective work (no, this is not a good idea). The book really is about Quinn, whose identity is strange and confusing, and about how it intersects with language and writing and his interpretation of the world.

Quinn is unusual in a few ways. First, he lives in a state of almost complete isolation. The book mentions early on that his wife and son have died. This fact is not fully addressed, even though allusions to in surface at unexpected moments throughout the text, and it seems to profoundly influence Quinn’s behavior in ways that are not analyzed or acknowledged.  His total willingness to give up on everything in his life, as well as his reaction to the families he encounters in the book, can be read as the manifestations of grief, but this is never made explicit.  But his isolation goes beyond the loss of his family. He has cut off contact with all his friends, abandoned his initial aspirations of writing poetry and essays, and instead writes mystery novels under a pseudonym which is arranged in such a way that he does not need to have any contact with his publisher.  He lives, therefore, under conditions of almost complete anonymity. He has no connection to any human being nor to the place where he lives.  He lives in New York and goes out to walk in the city in order to empty his mind: “By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal, and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere.  And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere.”  Oddly, the geography of the book is actually quite specific; the thing that makes it nowhere is just Quinn’s perception that it does not really matter where it is.  The same thing applies to people, however—it does not matter who anyone is, including Quinn himself.  This becomes clear when one considers his relationship to his many pseudonyms.

This is the second, and perhaps the most important, notable characteristic of Quinn.  He experiments with pseudonyms as if they were drugs.  He writes mystery novels under the name of William Wilson, with a hero named Max Work, and early on, the novel plays a little bit with Quinn’s relationship with these two characters.  He believes that he does not closely identify with either of them; he regards Wilson “with deference, at times even admiration” while not getting to close to him.  Work, on the other hand, seems to be in some ways a replacement for Quinn.  He is the one who actually interacts with the world, while Quinn withdraws further and further into his solitude. He sees Work in some ways as an avatar: “It was not precisely that Quinn wanted to be Work, or even to be like him, but it reassured him to pretend to be Work as he was writing his books, to know he had it in him to be Work if he ever chose to be, even if only in his mind.”  At the beginning of the book, Quinn seems on an explicit level to understand that he is not either of these people, but as the narrative progresses, he becomes very angry with a woman who feels indifferent toward one of the mystery novels with Wilson’s name on the cover.  In the meantime, he is taking the activity of pretending to be Work to an entirely new level by going so far as to take on a case.

But these are not his only pseudonyms. Rather, as the book goes on, he takes on more and more.  Above, I compared the pseudonyms to drugs; this is becomes the effect of each one on his consciousness is described, and they seem to influence his admittedly bizarre behavior. One of the first to appear is Paul Auster.

…okay, yes, this is very strange.  It’s pretty common to think about the character as a stand-in for the author (just as Work seems to be), but for a character to pretend to be the author by falsely assuming his name is strange and somewhat unsettling.  This gets even stranger, as a character named Paul Auster actually does exist in this novel, and is probably distinct from Paul Auster the novelist. I think.

Anyway, Paul Auster is a pseudonym which Quinn has thrust upon him; he receives several phone calls for a detective by that name and eventually agrees to take on the case.  (Strangely, the Paul Auster who appears in the novel turns out not to be a detective at all; this is part of the novel’s refusal to answer any questions about what is really going on in the plot.)  Quinn feels that he gets to know the Paul Auster that he is more as time goes on; he notes early on that he does not know who Paul Auster is, but after the appointment with people who expect him to be Paul Auster, he begins to recognize the effects of this name upon him: “The effect of being Paul Auster, he had begun to learn, was not altogether unpleasant.  … he no longer had to walk around with the burden of his own consciousness. By a simple trick of the intelligence, a deft little twist of naming, he felt incomparably lighter and freer.”  Assuming a different identity with different expectations attached to to is very freeing for Quinn—this is not surprising, but it seems that what he is trying to escape is not necessarily the painful identity of Daniel Quinn, widower, but the very fact of stable identity in the first place. He assumes more pseudonyms later in the book. In the later chapters, he sits down to talk to the elder Peter Stillman and uses a different name each time. In the first encounter, he uses his actual name of Quinn, which is reduced to a rhyming game.  Later, he calls himself Henry Dark, which is the name of a fictitious source Stillman fabricated for the purposes of his academic writing (!), and finally, he uses Stillman’s own name, or perhaps his son’s. Of course, since both Stillman and his son are named Peter Stillman, this is ambiguous, but Henry Dark is also ambiguous—Quinn suggests that he might be a different Henry Dark, other than the one who does not exist.

But in fact, all names are ambiguous.  Quinn’s encounter with Peter, the younger Stillman, is disturbing partly because Quinn’s dead son had been named Peter.  Peter tells him that he is the last of the Stillmans, but also insists repeatedly that, “I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name.”  As it turns out, though, nobody has a real name.  Names and identities are exposed as completely arbitrary because they are interchangeable from one character to another.  Ultimately, Quinn sheds all names and all public recognition of his identity to live in an alley. Ostensibly, this is because he is not getting a response from Peter and Peter’s wife/guardian Virginia, but his response seems totally disproportionate to his experiences.  He does not actually pay attention to the building which he is theoretically staking out; instead, he focuses on other matters, like the color of the sky, or his need to train himself to live without eating.  This is where Quinn’s identity totally dissolves.  He cannot reclaim his apartment, he cannot cash his check, and eventually he simply disappears, just as Peter and Virginia Stillman have before him.

So experimentation with alternate identities and different names seems to be a destructive life choice. But it’s not only Quinn’s name.  Nobody, as I mentioned above, has a real name.  The production of Henry Dark has already been discussed, but this idea shows up in the book in several other ways. Because Stillman apparently locked Peter up in the dark as a child, in order to see whether he would develop some kind of natural, human language, there are many references to wild children, and to the Tower of Babel, which was the subject of conspiracy theories by the fictitious Dark. Note that this means that Stillman invented Dark as a writer, so that he could put forth some conspiracy theories without claiming to believe them or taking responsibility for them in any way.  This gets tangled up with his theory about Don Quixote, who he claims was actually the author of his own story, but who behaved bizarrely in order to convince other people to write it down and promote it.  Oh, and of course Humpty Dumpty, that emblem of the arbitrary nature of language also shows up.

So what does this all add up to? Well, in good old postmodern fashion, it’s difficult to make it add up to anything.  It’s very clear that names do not identify nor do they distinguish people, which suggests that language is a muddle.  The Tower of Babel part of this is a desperate attempt to make language mean something and is shown to have a really high human cost.  The argument here isn’t so much that language is confusing and ultimately just a toy, but rather that language is very dangerous and if you mess around with it, you might lose your ability to interact with reality.

If you think about it, this is an odd argument for a book to make, but City of Glass is very conscious of this.  The Quixote matter shows this. The most important artifact in the book is Quinn’s red notebook, in which he records his observations. At the end of the book, the notebook is revealed to be the source of the narrative, but by bringing up this conspiracy theory about Don Quixote, the narrative induces the reader to be suspicious about such claims.  Who is the narrator? There is a narrator, who is separate from Quinn, and actually reveals him(?)self at the end in a conversation with Auster-the-character, in which the latter’s failure to take action on Quinn’s behalf is condemned.  “He will be with me always,” remarks this narrator.  This is a curious outcome in a story in which Auster-the-character looks a lot like a less tragic version of Quinn, with a surviving wife and son and an ability to resist getting sucked into these strange experiences, especially where characters and authors are both conflated and kept separate in such a strange way.

What does it all mean? Nobody knows, nobody can knows, and those who try to find out are punished.

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Filed under Literary thoughts

2 responses to “City of Glass: Not My Real Name

  1. I absolutely hated this book. I bought it before a trip to Italy several years ago, thinking it would be noir-ish. Imagine my surprise when I had story where all the characters were named after colors. It was so rapidly confusing, but I wanted to keep reading. I did until I was near the end and thought: I HATE THIS BOOK. Why keep reading? I left it on the train and haven’t looked back.

  2. Haha. I, on the other hand, expected postmodern language play, so my expectations were probably met a little better than yours. I’m writing about “Ghosts,” the story where everyone is named after colors, next–I have a theory about it which you may (or may not) find interesting. But yeah, this sort of thing tends to elicit strong reactions. Personally, I’m rather amused by it.

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