Tuesday, 21 July 2020

City Of Glass by Paul Auster


City Of Glass (The New York Trilogy #1) by Paul Auster
Published in America by Sun & Moon Press in 1985.

How I got this book:
Bought a paperback edition at a charity shop

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The New York Trilogy is perhaps the most astonishing work by one of America's most consistently astonishing writers. The Trilogy is three cleverly interconnected novels that exploit the elements of standard detective fiction and achieve a new genre that is all the more gripping for its starkness. It is a riveting work of detective fiction worthy of Raymond Chandler, and at the same time a profound and unsettling existentialist enquiry in the tradition of Kafka or Borges. In each story the search for clues leads to remarkable coincidences in the universe as the simple act of trailing a man ultimately becomes a startling investigation of what it means to be human. The New York Trilogy is the modern novel at its finest: a truly bold and arresting work of fiction with something to transfix and astound every reader.

I picked up a copy of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, of which City Of Glass is the first novella, in the hope that it might pull my partner out of a reading slump. I didn't know anything about his writing other than vaguely recognising the name, but was swayed by the high acclaim quoted on the cover. Unfortunately, while my partner did read all three stories without DNFing the book (which I suppose is a kind of praise!), he wasn't overkeen on Auster's unusual approach to crime fiction. His comments allowed me to go into City Of Glass with modified expectations which I feel really enhanced my appreciation of the story. Knowing that this wasn't going to be a typical mystery narrative meant that I wasn't thrown by the changes of direction.

City Of Glass, I think, is more a meditation on our ideas of self and what makes up a person's concept of their own identity. Our accidental detective, Quinn, motivates himself by inhabiting the imagined persona of the real detective for whom he has been mistaken, a certain Paul Auster who may or may not be the author himself. His unorthodox investigation becomes everything to him as he loses sight of his life beyond it and I was impressed by how authentically Auster-the-author portrayed his descent into what could well be a form of obsessive madness. The other two main male characters with whom he interacts are equally as bizarre, yet plausible within the context of this story. The lone woman came across to me as rather flat by comparison which was a shame. Perhaps her seemingly being the only untroubled person was the problem, but her continual sexual objectification by Quinn-as-Auster didn't help.

Reading City Of Glass did feel at times like getting lost in a philosophy text whose concepts I could nearly grasp, but not quite. For example, a deep discussion on Don Quixote by Cervantes might have been more intelligible had I actually ever read that book rather than just watching the ballet! I loved the sense of New York though. The city is practically a character in its own right within the story and I felt its atmosphere played a stronger role than just that of providing suitable locations. I think City Of Glass set in, say, London or Mumbai would have resulted in a very different story.

While I enjoyed the intensity and unpredictability of this novella, I'm not sure that for me it quite lived up to the praise I have seen heaped upon it elsewhere. I'm keen to go on to read the next two stories in the trilogy, and hope I can get a stronger grip on Auster's style as I do. I certainly did appreciate his not writing the usual formulaic mystery, but I wonder if I didn't quite grasp enough of the underlying meanings to truly understand City Of Glass.


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