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September 19, 2022

Review in Haiku: City of Glass

By Katrina Stonoff

Wrong number starts search.
Character impersonates
author, loses self.

City of Glass, by Paul Auster, is arguably the oddest book I have ever read.

I feel I need to add a disclaimer here, and warn readers this isn't a fun review, written in my typical, breezy, "Here's What I Liked and Didn't Like" style. But it was just that kind of book, impossible not to take seriously.

One more warning: I've included a few spoilers (I had to, to say what I wanted to say), but I don't think they're too bad.

I chose this book because I read (and was captivated by) the first line on "100 Best First Lines": "It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not."

A simple wrong number, but by starting this way, the story is moving before the main character is even introduced. That's definitely how I like my stories!

And indeed, this story is fascinating, though it will leave you with more questions than answers.

But questions are, I think, the point here.

Look at the structure. In that first paragraph, there is clearly a narrator, who is writing the story from some point in the future. The narrator might be the main character or someone else. But the point of view is fairly traditional Third Person. Though this type of POV, with a clear narrator, was (pre-Modernism) usually omniscient, in this chapter (and most that follow), it is standard Third Person limited. That is, the narrator has knowledge of the future that the POV character does not, but he does not have knowledge beyond the POV character.

Then we enter Chapter 2. Though it starts traditionally, it soon falls into the most limited Third Person I've ever seen. There are degrees of Third Person Limited POV that range from Limited Omniscience (i.e. the narrator can see the POV character's thoughts and knows the character's future, but not that of other characters) to a strict reporting of events, as if the narrator were only a machine, a video camera documenting the events with no knowledge of the future or internals.

But in most of Chapter 2, the POV is even more limited: the visuals on the video camera have shorted out, and all it records is the audio: one character speaking, without ambient noise or response from other characters. Even worse, it's the written transcript of the picture-less video because the character's voices are transcribed without inflection.

For 10 pages. 10 rather tedious pages. It brought to mind John Galt's equally long (and equally uninterrupted) speech toward the end of Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, but this speech occurs in Chapter Two!

Granted, it's fascinating. The character who is speaking has experienced such singular, formative events that the reader is compelled to watch (urm ... listen), much as perfectly nice people cannot look away when they drive past a horrible accident.

But I prefer my conversations as dialogue. In real life, one so rarely gets to give uninterrupted speeches, even short ones, and I find it indulgent when an author gives such a Shakespearean monologue to a character. Not to mention, it's difficult to stay grounded in the scene (two men, talking in a Manhattan apartment) when no visual cues are given, and even emotions are hard to judge without facial expressions. But I suspect those two results are exactly what Auster intended, so I'll drop this point.

Back to POV. Most of the book continues as Third Person Limited, with narrator. But in Chapter 12, the narrator suddenly names himself as "the author" (this information is less helpful than it might be since two of the characters in the books are authors, so "the author" could be one of the two characters, the narrator, or Paul Auster himself). A few sentences later, "The Author" lapses into first person plural POV: "We cannot say for certain what happened ... "

Then, at the end of Chapter 13, "the author" steps from behind the curtain and introduces himself in first person singular: "I returned home from my trip in February ... " So we learn specifically who the narrator is: a minor character in the story who only appears at the end.

Thus I ask myself questions, primarily why did Auster choose this unusual structure? I haven't yet found an adequate answer.

Another oddity: if an author set out to use, in one book, every single conceit that describes Metafiction, City of Glass might be the result.

Point the first: Not only is the main character a novelist, he writes mysteries under a non de plume, whom he considers a completely different person (there's a fascinating discussion where the narrator compares the author/character, the nom de plume, and the detective in the character's novels as ventriloquist, dummy and voice, and "Work"--the detective--is the voice).

Point the second: City of Glass is a novel within the novel (or at least a work within a work).

Point the third: Paul Auster himself is a character in the book. In a style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut, the author enters the novel and has a conversation about books and characters with the POV character.

In fact, they discuss Don Quixote, and how it is a book within a book (point the fourth).

Thus, City of Glass contains a book within a book within a book: a fact that would have delighted the characters. At this point, Auster (the author) practically announces that City of Glass is metafiction.

And finally, point the fifth: in the last chapter, the narrator addresses the reader directly and explains the difficulties he's had in determining the truth of the story.

"But ... how is the story?" you might ask, and I would respond, "Very interesting." The main character, Quinn, has extra time, so when the late night calls continue, he finally claims to be the mistaken identity: a private detective named Paul Auster.

All the characters are fascinating and fully drawn, but you must peel away the onion skin, layer by layer, to find their true depth. And the writing is lyrical and beautiful.

It's not an easy read, but it's worth it. Paul Auster is, simply, brilliant.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-04-28
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