City of Glass (The New York Trilogy, Volume 1) by Paul Auster

I had been intending to read Paul Auster for some time when Sasha, in the comments to my review of What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, Auter’s wife, suggested several of us read The New York Trilogy at the same time. I thought it was a great idea and, so, have started with City of Glass. I will be picking up the second in the trilogy, Ghosts, from the library within the next couple days. It is getting on two weeks since I fiished it and since Sasha posted her reaction.

The book began by promising me it would be one of my favorites, at least of the year. It ended leaving me confused and wondering whether I had been taken advantage of.

Much later, when he was able to think about things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance.

My understanding is that Paul Auster has an continuing interest in this idea of chance. Another of his novels is, after all, named The Music of Chance. Sarah, of A Rat in the Book Pile, reviewed that one and was, in a sense, my first introduction to Auster. With that review and this first of The New York Trilogy, I am certain I have too little to say or add to a conversation about Auster.

That theme of chance definitely suffuses his work. Sarah used this quote from The Music of Chance regarding a character’s choice of ramps on a highway:

It was a sudden, unpremeditated decision, but in the brief time that elapsed between the two ramps, Nashe understood that there was no difference, that both ramps were finally the same.

In City of Glass, the ostensible protagonist, Daniel Quinn, has been hired to keep Peter Stillman the son safe from Peter Stillman the father. His plan is to intercept Stillman the elder at the train station. He has an outdated picture of the man and knows on which train the man will arrive. Of course, two candidates show up and Quinn, on impulse, chooses to follow the poor and broken one rather than the wealthy and assured one.

There was no way to know: not this, not anything.

These two scenes are strikingly similar. In both, the character is faced with a split-second choice. In both, the character decides the choice makes little difference.

And, finally, that is my impression of the book. There are multiple available interpretations of the storyline, who is real, who is not, what happens, what does not. I do not have the tools I should to achieve any depth in this analysis because I have not read Don Quixote. This book relies heavily on Don Quixote. To the extent I am supposed to say whether you should read this work or not: You should. The exegesis on Don Quixote is worth the trouble to find and read the book. Quinn and Stillman have a conversation about Don Quixote and Cervantes. They discuss how Cervantes “goes to great lengths to convince the reader that he is not the author” of Don Quixote when, in fact, close examination of the novel demonstrates he must be. Part of Cervantes’s scheme is to insist that everything in the book really happened, when, really, it is a work of imagination that is “an attack on the dangers of make-believe.”

Paul Auster does a very similar thing in this work. Late in the book, our narrator tells us:

Since this story is based entirely on facts, the author feels it his duty not to overstep the bounds of the verifiable, to resist at all costs the perils of invention.

The parallel is not a result of my imagining. Quinn/Auster makes the connection explicitly. Daniel Quinn shares initials with Don Quixote.

He picked up his pen and wrote his initials, D.Q. (for Daniel Quinn), on the first page. It was the first time in more than five years that he had put his own name in one of his notebooks. He stopped to consider this fact for a moment but then dismissed it as irrelevant.

Yet, this novel is presented in the form of a mystery and the astute reader will have noticed Quinn’s earlier observation:

In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant.

For the less astute, Quinn makes the connection explicitly shortly after putting his initials in the notebook.

This comparatively slight book is packed with ideas. In addition to the rabbit-hole of reality vs. unreality, fate vs. chance, and chance as fate, there is the theme of doubling. Siri Hustvedt, in What I Loved, gave us the artist Bill Wechsler who was preoccupied with self-portraits, doubling, and ambiguity. Bill even says: “In my work, I want to create doubt. Because that’s what we’re sure of.”

Bill is Paul who is Quinn who is William Wilson and Don Quixote and Cervantes and Paul Auster.

He had, of course, long ago stopped thinking of himself as real.

Yes, and I did too. And, again, my central problem with this novel is that there is too much. I am not up to the task. I have to read more. There is a map of Daniel Quinn’s wanderings that I need to sketch. I will read it again. It is entertaining. It is amusing.

And that’s finally all anyone wants out of a book – to be amused.

P.S. Many, many thanks to Sasha for reading it at the same time, making me feel less alone in my confusion, and for posting first. I am sorry I have not been much help with the confuzzlement (nice word), but I can give you the condolence that I am terribly confuzzled too.

[Fixed a broken link and corrected a “the” to “they”. 19-Jul-2010]

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12 Responses to City of Glass (The New York Trilogy, Volume 1) by Paul Auster

  1. In some ways, reading this review and your sense of exasperation with Auster’s approach was almost as good as going back and picking up the book itself again — because I went through exactly the same frustration.

    And your reference to the map at the conclusion of the review was like ringing the bell in the town square for me. I eventually decided that the map — the two-dimensional representation of DQ’s world — was the hook that I need to maintain contact with the book. I don’t know New York that well, but I know it well enough that looking at the maps made some sense. New York is a three-dimensional city (see Colum McCann’s last novel for that aspect) but only two dimensions are “real” for the central character in this book. That third one is partly there and partly not. For me, that reference took me through the next two volumes. (If you are up to it, look out for Steven Milhauser’s Martin Dressler — it is about building that third dimension and is a wonderful novel.)

    With that in place, my second read of the trilogy made more sense — in that one I was better able to appreciate the awkward relationships between the characters that are an essential part of the trilogy. So then I had two interpretations, and even then I knew that I had only scratched the surface. I too need to read Don Quixote as an adult and will return to this trilogy once that I have done that. I figure there are at least four or five levels that I have yet to explore — but I am happy to say that the “maps” gave me an entry into this work. The question remains — is any work worth that many reads, just to understand it. I’m not sure, but I will give it at least one more.

  2. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    Thank you so much for this penetratingly insightful, and delightfully reassuring, comment. You both make me feel less bad about not coming up with a coherent interpretation of the essence of the book and give me great new ideas to ponder as I work my way (really not work, they are short and easy to read) through the next volumes in the trilogy. I like you idea that the characters are trapped in two-dimensions of their three-dimensional world.

    I will be paying attention to the awkward relationships between the characters the rest of the way. They are all awkward, aren’t they?

    Thank you!

    Kerry

  3. They are all awkward, and yet in their own way they are quite interesting. I admit that the two/three dimensional image is a “trick” but I think the novels require that to allow you to begin to explore their depth. I am not saying I understand everything, but I did find in the last two parts of the trilogy that framework helped give me some grounding. And, if nothing else, I think these three volumes are a better exploration of “New York” fiction than most that I can recall.

    The trick is the maps, I think. On one level, his character is “exploring” the city. On another, he is defining a territory (and that is a challenge given everything else that is going on with him). And then if you google it from the sky….. I remember some of those coffee shops where he is wandering — there was one on a visit where we watched a woman go through probably 150 envelopes of aspertame at a Starbucks (apparently she did this regularly, certainly the staff paid no attention). It was only a year later that I read the Trilogy — all of a sudden, it didn’t seem so weird. I do think the two/three dimensional element is important (and that’s why reading Milhauser is worthwhile — his character moves the world both up and down, literally). And if you haven’t read McCann yet, reading him after the Trilogy will make it a much better book — it is not great, but it has some wonderful elements.

    And we need Trevor to weigh in on this one — he both lives and works there.

    • Kerry says:

      I will definitely be keeping the maps think in mind. And New York is a wonderfully weird city, so it would take a wonderfully weird book to capture it. I see some echoes of City of Glass in Chronic City, I believe. Of course, almost impossible that Jonathan Lethem would not give at least a nod to Auster’s masterpiece in his own work. I probably would have gotten more out of Chronic City if I had read the Trilogy first. Oh well.

      I have read the McCann. Like you, I was underwhelmed. It is a good thing to have read a book set in New York in a somewhat proximate time frame.

      And, yes, would love to hear Trevor’s thoughts.

  4. I have admitted this before elsewhere, but can’t help but repeat it here. I first read The New York Trilogy in the Folio Society hardback — and my first edition had a printing error which meant that 24 pages, in four different sections of six, were blank.

    I could not figure out whether that was a deliberate part of the book or no (I am sure that you can understand), so went off shopping to scan copies — and couldn’t find any. Finally, I found a friend who knew the book and confirmed my problem.

    The Folio Society was very good about sending me another copy and did not even ask for the first one back. My friend (who loves Auster) demanded it — he says the missing pages are a special treasure for him. So, as you see, this is a fairly weird work.

    • Kerry says:

      I love this anecdote. I can appreciate your friend’s lust for the misprint. Kind of like stamp collectors’ fervor over that upside down airplane stamp or, closer to my heart, misprints on baseball cards. Scarcity correlates to value.

      It is a weird work, but enjoyably so (thus far anyway).

  5. Sarah says:

    When I first read your review I was hooked by the connection with Don Quixote, a novel which I was about to start. I immediately ear-marked the Paul Auster for my urgent attention after DQ.

    But having begun Don Quixote and returned to your review I see that, consciously or not, I have been applying what you describe here. So perhaps the Paul Auster should have come first. An intriguing puzzle!

    Either way I can never refuse the promise/threat of ‘confuzzlement’ and am looking forward to the novel with great anticipation.

  6. Kerry says:

    Funny you should stop by with this comment, I have been envying your Ulysses trek and your foray in to Don Quixote. I keep putting these off until next week or next month and you are knocking them both off. Well done! At least I will get the vicarious enjoyment.

    I am taking a slight break before I read the next two parts. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has bullied them back to the TBR. But hopefully they will either reduce (or add to?) the confuzzlement.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. […] recently read Cloud Atlas and City of Glass, I was slightly disappointed that the title of Orphen’s novel wasn’t Turn, Magic Wheel […]

  8. Sasha says:

    It’s taken me a week to get this comment up. Partly because I’m in awe of the discussion between you and Kerry, and I wanted to be able to make my thoughts here worth this discussion. :]

    But, well, I’m all Auster-ed out. He’s exhausting, and I keep thinking about how I read this book as one would a riddle. I never fully trust Auster when he writes fiction. That is, I know he’s good, but he bids you to keep your guard up. It can be rewarding but, yes, exhausting. Frustrating. Confuzzling.

    I still do want to reread this. I’m hoping that experience would be like Kerry’s — less focused on the riddles and more on the craft itself, the people.

    Looking forward to what you think of “The Locked Room” — it was my favorite of the three. :]

  9. Kerry says:

    I do have Ghosts taunting me from the bedside table, but I am still working through The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Fortress of Solitude. By roughly this time next week, I should make it to and through Ghosts and, then, The Locked Room. Posts not long after, assuming I can come up with something to say…(of course, Kevin’s analysis has been excellent and should be a help in making some sense of it as I continue through the trilogy.)

  10. […] The New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room (review coming soon)) – Paul Auster […]

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