Review of City
Copyright © by Everett Goldner, 4/8/05
As the Train was
heard the name Paul Auster. Even if
you’re not familiar with any of his novels, the movie Smoke
should ring a bell. He was a poet
until he was thirty-five (producing two books that you won’t find anywhere but
used bookstores or by ordering them), and at times made his way by translating
French novels into English, and vice versa.
He then became a novelist. He
wrote The Music of Chance (about a
wall built by two men who’ve lost a game of cards), he wrote Moon
Palace, a trip through the landscape of a college grad at the end of the
sixties, he wrote The Book of Illusions,
about a college professor who becomes enmeshed in the life of a one-time silent
film star following the sudden deaths of his family.
Before any of these or his five others, he wrote The New York Trilogy in 1981 through 1984.
It was a trio of three short novels: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room. Each book was no more than 150 pages. On the surface, they were unconnected; different characters, different locales, plots with no tie to each other. All they had in common to look at them was that they were all noirs of a very unique (the word ‘unique’ was not in vogue then) and personal kind. And there were other connections, other levels and layers to pull at and pore over, but they were the kind a reader could go a lifetime without really knowing. “Each of these stories is finally the same story,” says the unnamed narrator of The Locked Room, “but each one represents a different stage in my understanding of what it is about.”
The protagonist of City of Glass is a writer. His name is Daniel Quinn, and of his life we know only that he once had a wife and a small son, and that both had died, and that he was now completely alone, with only himself and his writing. He didn’t think about his family much, anymore.
More than anything else, “what Quinn liked to do was walk.” He would walk through the streets of New York and feel that he was leaving himself behind. Feeling as if the city were a labyrinth of endless steps, he walked almost all the time when he wasn’t writing, and so escaped the pain of thinking. By reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to feel that he was nowhere at all.
“This was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere.”
When he wrote, now, he wrote mystery novels under a pen name, and if he truly existed at all it was through these, and not as a man. His pseudonym was William Wilson. His detective was Max Work, and through the Work novels, Quinn again left his own flesh and never thought of himself as real. “He was the dummy. Wilson was a kind of ventriloquist, and Work was the voice that gave purpose to the enterprise.” Things went on in this way. He had his mysteries: he liked their economy. The fact that no sentence, no word is not significant, or without the potential for significance. “Everything becomes essence”; the center shifts, is everywhere, is nowhere, and no conclusion can be drawn until the end...
Quinn had never met a single reader of William Wilson’s. He had never even seen a single person reading a Wilson novel. One night the phone rang, and the voice on the line asked for someone Quinn had never heard of. They asked for one Paul Auster, of the Auster detective agency. The name meant nothing to Quinn, and he hung up. But when the same person called again for Auster he thought about it. And when they called a third time, he was prepared, and stepped into the role. “This is Auster speaking...” and so it began.
In the shoes of Auster, Quinn’s job was to protect someone who feared they were going to be murdered. The voice on the other end of the phone was named Peter Stillman.
Still Man, who appears in just one scene in City of Glass, seems to me to be stumbling and shimmying through the rest of the book. The first and last thing there is to know about this... person... is that his life has thrown his mind so far out of whack that he can never again have a semblance of rightness: “No questions. Yes. No. I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name. Excuse me.” The artists who made this adaptation, Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, have done a good job of translating Stillman into visuals (although I’ve known Auster’s work for what seems like an eternity and I feel entitled to say that it’s not the way I picture him myself – Stillman should have a disturbing, subtle and utterly bizarre grandeur about him. Here he looks lost: a broken puppet in the body of a young adult. But then, I knew the prose first.)
When he was a small kid, Stillman was locked in the basement by his father, for nine years. As an experiment. Stillman senior was an Ivy League language professor who had written a tract called The New Babel; a retelling of the Biblical Babel inclusive of Stillman’s own accounts (through a pseudonym) of “a visionary new world...” that would begin in a set year. 1960. The notion we have here is to take a child that knows no natural language and isolate him from everything and everyone. (“This is called speaking,” says Peter Stillman. “The words come out for a moment and die. Strange, is it not? I myself have no opinion. If I can give you the words you need it will be a great victory.”
And the question here is: would that child emerge to speak some kind of Ur-language? (ie., a ‘language of god’?)
“And it is true, yes, and I say this of my own free will, that sometimes I just scream and scream. For no good reason.”
Quinn had heard of cases like Stillman’s; tales of children growing up alone and apart; children outside the bounds of normal human presumption. He had written a review once of a book about one of them. And of course, there was the subject of his own son. The story was that Stillman senior was finally going to be released from whatever psychiatric ward he had been locked away in. If he was indeed coming back to finish what he’d started by locking his son up in 1960, then Quinn wanted to be present to stop him.
“It did not help, perhaps, that his son’s name had also been Peter.”
He accepted the fact of the job he was supposed to do, and went home to record his initial thoughts in the notebook he had purchased for the Stillman case.
All I can say is this: listen to me. My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name.
The next morning, Quinn is at the train station awaiting Stillman’s arrival. What finds him as the passengers get off is yet another of the abandonings to fate, chance, or whatever you want to call it, that Auster’s work is always returning to: a broken-down older man gets off, the Stillman Quinn is expecting, stooped and hobbling, with a shabby bag. Just behind him, his mirror image appears: another Stillman gets off, except this one is dressed in a fine business suit, hair groomed, smoking a cigarette. Which is his and what’s what? Anything Quinn does now will be a total relinquishing of order.
“There was no way to know; not this, not anything...”
He follows the first one.
Over the next days and weeks, Quinn follows the broken-down Stillman as Stillman putters around New York. Stillman walks the streets, seemingly at random, picks up trash, inspects some of it, puts it in his bag. He never tries to contact his son. One night as Quinn sits tracing Stillman’s movements, he sees that Stillman’s total path for the first day Quinn had followed him forms a letter: an ‘O’. He flips over to the next day and sees that it seems to form a ‘W’. Then an ‘E’, an ‘R’, another ‘O’, an ‘F’...
Tower of Babel.
He meets with Stillman three times. All of these meetings are strange, cryptic, use your own adjective – but with Auster’s work, you always either accept what you’re seeing without too many questions, or you don’t. Quinn introduces himself once as Quinn. (“I see many possibilities for this Quinn,” says Stillman, “this... quintessence of quiddity...”) He meets Stillman again and says he is Henry Dark. (Dark is the supposed ‘author’ of The New Babel: “is he a friend of yours?” “Not exactly; I made him up. I had certain ideas that were dangerous and controversial, so I pretended they had come from him.” “Amazing...”), and once as the man he’s supposed to be protecting – Peter Stillman. Stillman never recognizes him from one meeting to the next or seems to think that Quinn isn’t who he says he is. They discuss linguistic puns, all the old semantic gems like Humpty Dumpty’s Alice in Wonderland speech about a word meaning exactly what the speaker intends it to mean. And Stillman explains his project: things aren’t whole, so words don’t express them; if an umbrella breaks and you get wet, is it still an umbrella? In New York, says Stillman, “brokenness is everywhere. Broken people, broken things, broken thoughts. I collect these shattered objects and I give them names; I invent new words that correspond to the things.” But how can he be sure of the right word? Oh, I never make a mistake, Stillman says. It’s a function of my genius. “Could you give me an example?” Not yet, says Stillman.
“I’ve often thought: I wonder how Peter is getting along.”
“I’m much better now,” says Quinn. “All words are available to me, even the ones most people have trouble with.”
“I’m proud of you, Peter. Remember, children are a great blessing...”
And then, wouldn’t you know it, Stillman disappears. Quinn calls his employer, Stillman junior’s erstwhile wife; tells her he has several ideas about what to do next, hangs up and wrings his head in despair.
For the fact is, he has lied to her. He doesn’t have several ideas; he does not even have one.
(“Best of all, there is the air. Yes, and little by little I have learned to live inside it. For now I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name.”)
Faced with the chill of utter emptiness, Quinn does something about it. He goes to confront the source, as it were. He looks up Paul Auster.
Auster, however, is not a detective.
“I’m sorry. But that’s what I happen to be.” Auster pondered a moment. “Quinn... I know that name. Are you a poet?”
“I used to be. But not for several years.”
“You did a book – Unfinished Business. I liked it; I’d hoped to see more. I wondered what had happened to you.”
“I’m still here. Sort of.”
Quinn is beyond baffled; none of it makes sense. Auster invites him in and to Quinn’s further confusion, they spend the next few hours discussing Auster’s current work, an essay on Don Quixote: who wrote it? That is, who wrote the inner book, the one Cervantes would have imagined himself writing? Auster’s conclusion is that it’s the protagonist of the work; it’s Don Quixote himself. Through a number of convolutions, Auster is arguing, Quixote arranged for Cervantes to hire Quixote himself to translate his own story, which he had already written in Spanish.
“...he was conducting an experiment. He wanted to see to what extent people would tolerate lies and nonsense if it gave them amusement. And the answer? To any extent. For we still read the book today.
“And that’s finally all anyone wants out of a book. To be amused.” Auster lit a cigarette. He seemed to be smiling ironically at something, some private joke, but the import of it was elusive to Daniel Quinn.
Auster’s wife and son arrive home and Auster introduces them to Quinn. (They are real, just in case you were wondering – Auster’s wife, one Siri Hustveldt, is also a novelist; his son Daniel does exist and is presumably all really there.) Quinn talks with the boy (same name – “I’m you and you’re me,” says the boy; “everyone’s Daniel!”) and Auster asks if he’ll stay to dinner with them.
(“And they said: go now, there’s nothing more we can do. You are a human being, Peter Stillman. Thank you oh so very much.”)
“Ah, that’s very kind...” says Quinn, feeling as though Auster were taunting him with the things he’s lost. He declines, and realizes he’s still holding the boy’s yo-yo, which he’d been playing with.
He smiles, puts it in Auster’s hand and pats him on the shoulder. Then he leaves.
(“Clack clack. Chumblecraw. Beloo. Excuse me,” says Peter Stillman. “I am the only one who understands these words.”)
This is where Quinn starts to break down. He walks the streets, he calls the Stillmans and gets no response, he sees, as if for the first time, the broken-down, the wretched, the people of shattered lives. Begging for change; others who’ve given up hope completely.
Others with real talent. Musicians.
“The man improvised tiny variations, enclosed in his own universe. It went on and on. The longer I listened, the harder I found it to leave.
“To be inside that music: perhaps that is a place where one could finally disappear.”
He stakes out the Stillman house, from across the street. In a box. For weeks and months, he sits there, holding vigil, protecting the ghost of Stillman from his father. No one ever appears. He sits and sits, with a dwindling supply of money which finally runs out, and he has to leave to get more from the bank.
“We will never know the agonies he suffered at having to leave his spot...”
Along the way, he catches sight of himself in a mirror.
“He was neither shocked nor disappointed, merely fascinated.”
He’s become ragged and unkempt in all the months he’s been staking out the Stillman home; a huge beard, and unrecognizable to himself.
“He had been one thing, and now he had become another.”
He goes to a park, and falls asleep in the sunshine. It’s the first unbroken sleep he’s had in months.
“It was neither better nor worse.”
His apartment, of course, is no longer his; he discovers when he finally gets there. Someone else lives there and they don’t care one way or the other who this person is or what they want. He calls Auster, who groans and wants to know where the hell Quinn’s been all this time. The check he’d given Auster, made out in Auster’s name, the original front-money for the case, has bounced, and when Quinn says he’s still working on the case Auster shakes his head in disbelief. “It’s over – don’t you read newspapers? Stillman’s dead. Your Stillman – the professor. He jumped off the Brooklyn bridge two months ago.”
(“But it was hard to teach him people words. His mouth did not work right. He still has other words inside his head. They are God’s language.”)
As with every other emotional balancing act in this book and so often in Auster’s books, the character has no visible reaction to this. He thanks Auster, hangs up and calls the Stillmans.
(“I see hope everywhere, even in the darkness, and when I die I will perhaps become God.”)
He proceeds to the Stillman house and lets himself in, unsurprised and incurious at the vacated and empty apartment. He sits in Stillman’s room and in the ever-decreasing light, writes down the end of it in his notebook. Unfinished questions about the case. The puzzle-meanings of semantic riddles. Coincidences. Endings. He knows that his words have been severed from him and are no longer are part of his story. He writes about “the infinite kindnesses of the earth... the stars, the wind, his hopes for mankind...”
He wonders at the language of all the steps he’s taken in his life. He wonders what word it would spell.
What will happen when there are no more pages in the red notebook?
(“Peter knew some words. The father thought maybe he would forget them. After a while.”)
The story ends there, of course. Except...
It’s been about eight years since I first picked up a copy of The New York Trilogy in prose and fell inside, reading it over and over with a fire in my head. Eight years, while a phenomenon called post-modernism rose and rose to a fever pitch, and then disintegrated into mist... maybe someday there’ll be a reason why I was led here, but I doubt it; all I know for now is, there’s nothing for it but to finish this review.
CofG has been told in voice-overs, like any fiction that’s written in third person. Intimate accounts of the hero’s journey, but without any real person attached to the telling. This is what we expect: we register it automatically and think nothing of it. But suddenly there’s a presence. Someone is telling us this, and has been the whole time.
“I returned home from my trip to Africa in February,” reads the next line. “I called Auster and he urged me to come over.”
Auster tells his friend everything: Quinn, the case, the visit, all of it. They go to the Stillman house, where the narrator suspects Quinn has ended up. He’s vanished, of course, but Quinn’s red case notebook is there.
Auster flips through it and gives it to the narrator. The whole business has upset him much too badly, he says. He never wants to see it again.
“The notebook, of course, is only half the story, as any sensitive reader will understand. As for Auster, I am convinced he behaved badly throughout. If our friendship has ended, he has only himself to blame.
“As for me,” says the unnamed narrator, “my thoughts remain with Quinn. He will be with me always. And wherever he may have disappeared to, I wish him luck...”
As for me, says Everett Goldner, I have finally put to rights a piece of the puzzle that has gone unresolved for far too long and gotten in the way too unaccountably often, and I suspect has in part been the cause of mistakes and confusion that never should have been. I don’t intend to return. Writing this review has been stifling, but the gravity of Auster’s work doesn’t let anyone off easy. (“Writing is no longer an act of free will for me,” Auster has said more recently, “it’s a matter of survival.” The introduction to the graphic novel mentions that two attempts to turn CofG into a screenplay failed miserably. This is not shocking news to me.) All I can do is point you at the source material.
And I’m finished. That’s it.
“Life can last just so long, you understand. Everything else is in the room, with darkness, with God’s language, with screams. Here I am of the air, a beautiful thing for the light to shine on. Perhaps you will remember that. I am Peter Stillman, that is not my real name.”
“Thank you very much.”
Some Auster paraphernalia: over Auster’s writing career, he’s experienced
and recorded many interesting things that seem connected to him in ways he
doesn’t understand. He’s
published an account of them in The Red
Notebook, the last section of a book of essays, prefaces and interviews
called The Art of Hunger.
There’s much more depth, vista and sheer range of material in that book
than I can begin to go into here. As
for the novels: if you’re going to pick up City
of Glass, I definitely recommend getting a bound volume with the entire
trilogy. Following on the heels of
it, Auster wrote In the Country of Last
Things (1987), and reading all four of them together can be enriching and
(1992) is another keeper, as is the recently published (2003) Oracle
Night. I find The Book of
Illusions (2002) to be his fullest and richest work, while readily admitting
that my opinion isn’t very objective.
Here’s one good website devoted to the man’s works: http://www.paulauster.co.uk/
‘Reflections on the work of Paul Auster’, an essay by Garan Holcombe, is extremely edifying: http://www.calitreview.com/Essays/paul_auster_5007.htm
Finally, try Stillman’s
Maze as a sort of counterfeit key to Auster’s universe: http://www.bluecricket.com/auster/auster.html
Beyond that, simply Google the man. A lot of the information that there is to be found on him is academic essays; not really helpful or interesting. I’m afraid offering many more recommendations at this point could become too random an enterprise.
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