In my Postmodern American Fiction class this past semester, we were assigned to write a page reflection each week on the book that we read. I actually really enjoyed writing these reflections because they were a chance to choose a specific aspect of the book and discuss it in depth without needed to come to any precise conclusions or arguments. In fact, I liked it so much that I’ve decided to continue on the process this summer! Along with reviews I’ll be sharing these reflections, brief discussions on novels that I’ve read without any value judgment or rating on my part. Let me know what you think!
Self-referentiality is a cornerstone of postmodernism; even so, I did not expect to find so many layers of it throughout Paul Auster’s City of Glass. The novel’s self-referential nature raises some interesting and important questions about narration, particularly regarding how to classify the narrator’s position in relation to the text. The beginning of the novel appears to be written from a third person perspective, as suggested by the very first sentence: “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” (Auster 7). While there are often references to some sort of plural collective (“As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us […] We know, for example, that he was thirty-five years old” (Auster 7)), the narration style nevertheless has the feel of a third person perspective, someone omnisciently looking on at these events as a mere observer.
Yet the narration takes an entirely different course at the end of the novel when the story itself is brought into the content of the novel. For instance, the narrator states that “the story grows obscure” because “the information has run out, and the events that follow this last sentence will never be known” (Auster 200-1). Even more startling is the sudden switch to first person at the novel’s conclusion when the narrator says: “I returned home from my trip to Africa in February, just hours before a snowstorm began to fall on New York. I called my friend Auster that evening, and he urged me to come over to see him as soon as I could” (Auster 201). Here we have a striking paradox: how can this narrator speak with his friend Auster if Auster is also the name of the person writing this novel? Is this switch from third person to first person really a switch, or has this unknown narrator been narrating in the first person all along?
In a way, it seems as though the author is poking fun at the reader’s instinctual expectations that a first person narrator automatically equates to the author himself in the absence of a clearly identified narrating protagonist. This paradox seems like a continuation of the name-play the author partakes in throughout the novel, from the Quinn/Max Work/William Wilson trio to the father/son duo of Peter Stillman. Perhaps the author also endeavors to break down the meaning of names, suggesting that names are not as significant as we believe them to be if the same name can refer to several different people. The Paul Auster that is a character in the novel may have absolutely no relation to the Paul Auster who wrote City of Glass; rather, they simply have the same name. Not only does language lose meaning here, but the position of the narrator becomes so tangled and muddled that it almost seems arbitrary.
Thoughts on City of Glass? Have you ever read a book with a similar paradox of names or layering of narration? Let me know in the comments section below!