City of Glass: the Mystery of Self

                

A few pages into Paul Auster’s City of Glass I realized I’d read the book before. Except this realization proved false, as I soon worked out that I’d read the first few chapters before, but never the whole thing. From this uncanny beginning of recognizing what I thought ought to be unfamiliar, the book proceeded to confirm my initial suspicions: this is a book I’ve read before, but forgotten, as all books are those we have read before, but forgotten – as all people are those we’ve already met. And ourselves? We are perhaps people of convenience, decision makers of circumstance, individuals without a tether: kite strings caught in a hurricane.

The narrative follows Daniel Quinn Paul Auster William Wilson Henry Dark Paul Stillman a character as he wanders the city trying to work out the mystery – or the potential for a mystery – of who is (or might be) (or will be) out to harm Stillman and moreover who is (or might be) (or will be) Daniel Quinn. The plot itself is brief and focused, principally the actions of Quinn, but peppered with thoughtful conversations with other characters that meditate on authorship, credibility and the continuity of self.

A passage to clarify this kind of embedded musing (that masterfully does not annoy as some quasi-philosophical ramblings do, but does not go unnoticed as a passage on Who We Are): “Was ‘fate’ really the word he wanted to use? It seemed like such a ponderous and old-fashioned choice. And yet, as he probed more deeply into it, he discovered that was precisely what he meant to say. Or, if not precisely, it came closer than any other term he could think of. Fate in the sense of what was, of what happened to be. It was something like the word ‘it’ in the phrase ‘it is raining’ or ‘it is night.’ What that ‘it’ referred to Quinn had never known. A generalized condition of things as they were, perhaps; the state of is-ness that was the ground on which the happenings of the world took place” (207-8).

This passage well captures the tone of the book – somewhere between detached third person omniscient (a suitable choice given the premise that the events are being reported by a third person who has stumbled on Quinn’s account recorded in a red notebook) and minimalist. The passage also highlights the preoccupation in the narrative with the parallel opacity of language and selves. In this sense Auster (reasonably we might think) connects the post-structuralist boo-ra-ha-ha about the permanence of language, the (supposed) crisis in epistemology and extends this to the condition of individuals as patchwork pieces continually reconstituted.

The book was written in 1985. An important date only if you’re concerned that these ideas are old hat. Not so, I think. I’m sure there too many narratives written that ask the same questions: who are we? why do stories matter? how can we know anything? anything about ourselves? But Auster’s text is simply masterful in asking these questions as genuine concerns. The narrative wants no answers, it argues against the possibility of answers, instead it contents itself with being as the New York Times Book Review says on the back cover “for all those who seek the truth behind the fictions they read and the fictions they live.” And why shouldn’t I end with the NYTimes? Their words are mine, too.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, American literature, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner

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