By Mark York
It racks my brain, dear reader, that anyone could resist the lure of a good detective story.
There is nothing more exciting to me than a mysterious murder, impossible theft or surreal sighting. There is hardly anything more satisfying than a big reveal, like the unmasking of a criminal, or a hidden past. There is little that can beat a dashing hero with only logic to wield. Truly, the mystery genre is the closest we get to interactive literature (ignoring, for a moment, actual interactive fiction) and it has a special place in my heart.
Paul Auster’s “City of Glass,” however, remains an anomaly.
The first addition to The New York Trilogy, “City of Glass” follows Daniel Quinn, a mystery novelist who gets mistaken as — and later assumes the identity of — a real life detective. The premise is pretty easy to grasp, but it quickly nosedives into insanity. The fact that the detective in the story is also named Paul Auster speaks a lot about its overall tone.
When it comes to the book or its adapted graphic novel, readers tend to have similarly visceral reactions. There are swears, migraines, frantic hand gestures, perhaps one might even punt the book like a football (at least, that’s what I might’ve done). Then, one stares at the cover, flips through its pages, and wonders … “where’s the rest?”
Indeed, I hope I can later convey what makes this novel so infuriating, but there is more to it than that. When examining literature and its lengthy, twisty history, one will find that this trippy masterpiece is one of the most interesting and surprisingly poignant novels of the 20th century. You see, “City of Glass” is a literary deconstruction — though in less boring, English class-y terms, it is an autopsy! By examining how deconstructions operate, and what they tend to reveal about narrative tropes and expectations, we can reveal what — according to Auster — killed the detective genre.
For starters, this novel has an unusual relationship with the mystery canon. “City of Glass” is, technically, part of the detective genre, though Auster does not seem too happy about that. If the Doyles and the Christies of literature got together for Thanksgiving, Auster would be at the end of table, grumbling angrily, picking fights with Keene, and having far too many drinks for his own good. It would be more accurate, instead, to call it a deconstruction.
If this term seems alien, rest assured reader — you have met a deconstructionist before. Think back to that one friend who looks at a superhero movie and says “you can’t REALLY move at the speed of sound,” or the smart aleck who consistently points out historical inconsistencies in a Disney movie. Literary deconstructions are, in simplest terms, stating the obvious. These stories take common cliches or expectations that come associated with genres or movements and apply them to differing contexts. Like mustard on your finest suit, this technique filters out the fictional by crafting an environment non-catering to these tropes.
Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” is often seen as a deconstruction of the romantic movement. Placing a typical romantic heroine in a harsher, cynical environment emphasizes the unhealthy mentality of these works. The Netflix original, “Bojack Horseman,” does the same with adult sitcoms, taking a typical crude, mean-spirited protagonist and making him accept the consequences of his behavior. I must stress, a deconstruction is NOT a parody! “Enchanted” and “Shrek” are parodies of Disney movies, but they are not deconstructions. Parodies are transparent, but deconstructions are played straight; parodies mock, but deconstructions are transformative (I would argue that “Frozen” is a closer example to a deconstruction, but that is a whole new bundle of eggs).
Look to the entertainment world today — through all sectors of nerdom — and you will find deconstructions peppered in. There is the “Watchmen” series for comic books, “Game of Thrones” for fantasy, “Hunter x Hunter” for anime. Surely, this is the genre of the “intellectual” — monocle fixed, nose propped to the sky — though, how does “City of Glass” work as a deconstruction of the detective genre? And furthermore, what does it have to say?
I must admit, these are rather difficult questions, and I am still uncertain about my answers. Finding meaning in “City of Glass” is, to me, like finding a light at the end of a tunnel — the tunnel itself being plunged into a black hole. What is easier to identify, however, are points of unease within Auster’s work. The subversions of expectation that makes my mystery loving heart bleed. I call them “sporks,” for who in their right mind expects a spork at a dinner party?
The most obvious spork in question is the lack of resolution. Readers tend to expect a neat little bow atop their novels, especially within the detective genre; we anticipate the killer’s reveal, or simply a satisfying explanation. In “City of Glass,” however, the supposed villain commits suicide (with hardly a cause), the clients disappear, and not even the protagonist is accounted for. Any and all questions that have been risen are given silence — in a sense, Paul Auster has ghosted the reader.
There are other unusual sporks in this novel, however. “City of Glass” has no regard for the fourth wall, introducing Paul Auster not as a detective but as an author (implicitly working on the very same book we are reading), bringing in an unnamed narrator only in the last few pages, and suggesting this story to be an account from a mentally deteriorating Daniel Quinn. Reality and fantasy have been scrambled together into a “Human Centipede” of a meta-situation.
What I find most fascinating, however, is the complete lack of agency of our protagonist. Think back to Doyle; the world of “Sherlock Holmes” revolves around its main character, and Holmes actively effects his story’s sequence of events. Quinn does not get the same treatment. He does not solve the mystery, nor does he affect any characters. Instead, and very unlike Holmes, he becomes an absolutely passive agent, losing his apartment, his power, his sanity and resorting to a sort of comatose state as he gets fed by some faceless figure. Quinn loses the will to even take care of himself.
… THIS is how this story ends! Can you not FEEL my frustrations, reader!? Imagine writing an IB ESSAY about this!
Taking these “sporks” in mind, though, I reached a sort of conclusion. The real world is ambivalent towards closure.
Daniel Quinn is meant to represent the superficial lure of the detective genre — that is taking a strange, perhaps frightening situation and finding answers to it. Our protagonist’s pursuit for resolution is self-destructive when applied to reality.
Within the first chapter, we discover that Quinn has lost his wife and kid, and it is implied that playing the hero is a way of coping. Literally finding closure as a detective is a way of figuratively finding closure as a widower. This creates a meshing of two realms, reality and fiction (the meta-nature of this novel is thus representative of how Quinn himself sees the world), emphasized further by the constant allusions to Don Quixote — one might argue, the original deconstruction. This results in our protagonist fading along with the case. The world moves on without our detective.
Thus, by looking at “City of Glass” through the lens of a deconstruction, its meaning has been drastically transformed from what can initially seem like a mere, pretentious acid-trip. This is, by no means, a perfect analysis, or likely even an accurate conclusion, though it is one that, after years of thinking, works for me. Perhaps I should consider myself fortunate.
It is worth noting, however, that I considered following the spirit of the novel by ending the article half-way through … upon further consideration, that seemed to be a bad idea.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.