Paul Auster, City of Glass

I’ve just finished reading City of Glass, one of many suggestions I’ve received for expanding the reading list for my upcoming ‘Mystery and Detective Fiction’ course.

Unprofessional reaction: I hated this book. It’s too clever by half, full of cute intertextual, metatextual jokes and tricks, and all too predictably and preeningly post-modern about the elusiveness of meaning, the fracturing of identity, and the gaps between signifieds and signifiers. It’s fiction as word- and mind- games, all metaphysics and no humanity.*

Professional reaction: This book is utterly unlike the other novels on my syllabus, and yet deliberately and intricately engaged with them and what they represent and investigate (I realized that all by myself, even before I read through this smart critical essay). You could say that it offers a philosophical and theoretical as well as literary response to the rest of the syllabus. In its own way, it takes the metaphysical premises and literary conventions of detective fiction more seriously than any of the other assigned works–and, again in its own, postmodern, self-conscious way, does more with them (or should I say, to them?). Pedagogically, I can certainly see the case for teaching it, and I’m sure I and my students would learn from the experience.

So here’s where I’m left for now: I hate the novel, I’d be happy never to read it again, it’s everything I don’t like about postmodern fiction (and theory)…but it just might be the right book for my course, and assuming I can learn to engage with the novel intellectually, my visceral dislike of it will either be rendered irrelevant or even subside. Maybe.


* Update: This review of Auster’s recent Man in the Dark over at the TLS tells me mine is not a wholly idiosyncratic response to Auster: “for the first time, perhaps, in an Auster novel the heart is more important than the head.”

2 thoughts on “Paul Auster, City of Glass

  1. Bill from PA March 9, 2016 / 2:42 pm

    I should have checked the archives for an Auster entry before making my comment on his work as “anti-detective”. My reaction to City of Glass was some combination of your two reactions. At the time I read it, I had probably read more post-modern fiction than I had detective fiction, so I was perhaps more indulgent of its mind-games. Knowing it was the first of a trilogy, I also went on to read Ghosts and The Locked Room, partly in the hope that the trilogy as a whole might eventually bow to the convention that the detective solves the case and that there might be some sort of wider resolution. Spoiler alert, they work to more-or-less the same formula, beginning with a classic detective story set-up but ending up engaging in abstract and ultimately unresolvable issues.

    • Rohan Maitzen March 9, 2016 / 4:42 pm

      Goodness, 2008 seems a long time ago! I assigned it maybe three times before I got tired of it. It worked well for all the reasons I suggested in this post, but my own dislike of its trickery never really got better. I am glad to know that I’m not missing something by not finishing the trilogy.

      A few years after this post, and after dropping Auster from the syllabus, I added Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress to the course, a book which I also really disliked on first reading but now quite admire. It too challenges some of the certainties and tropes of the genre, but does so in the interests of social and racial justice, not mind-games, which appeals to me much more.

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