Not School Group Report: Paul Auster’s Novella, “City of Glass”

Editor's Note: PEL listener Paul Harris has written up this report on a great Not School discussion available for member download. Whether or not you want to join, it's still a fricking great book, recommended for anyone with an interest in modern and/or philosophical literature.

Last Sunday, the Not School group ‘Worlds of Wordcraft’ – a group created to read and discuss philosophical novels – had its first live, remote discussion. The subject was Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass, which was published as the first part of The New York Trilogy. The book presents itself as a work of detective fiction. However, it soon becomes clear that it is far from conventional in its structure. The work has been cited as an example of ‘postmodern detective fiction’ where the mystery contained within the narrative is itself surrounded by the mystery of the novella’s construction.

The story focuses on the character of Daniel Quinn, himself an author of crime fiction, who early on in the story takes on a private detective case after he receives a number of mysterious phone calls asking for somebody of whom he has never heard. Once he decides to assume the identity of the person being asked for, Quinn then embarks on what could arguably be called an anti-detective story. Without giving too much away, it becomes clear to the reader that there is more at stake than a straightforward investigation of a mysterious person.

The story focuses heavily on the experience of walking through New York and on Quinn's methodology in building a case. His process is to write the city, at times going so far as to literally map out certainly sections. The text is scattered with intertextual references to works such as Don Quixote and Through The Looking Glass. At its heart being a novel about the process of writing itself, the questioning of authorship and the role of the author in creating the text, in the way of the post-structuralist approach seen in Roland Barthes's later work and much of Jacques Derrida’s writing. When reading the book, the reader is forced to become a detective in his own right, navigating his way through the text and attempting to solve the mystery before the dénouement.

While it's not a text that has a distinct philosophy in and of itself, it plays with the detective formula to explore questions of language, writing and identity. The most abstract ideas presented in the story are about the nature and creation of language, which itself is something that clearly has an impact on our perspective of anything that we read. ...Especially if you consider the basis of philosophy to be the quest for meaning, which is then reflected through the structure of the narrative as a piece of metafictional/postmodern detective fiction. Auster clearly wants us to question our position as readers and reconsider our relationship to the text.

The full, recorded discussion featuring three PEL listeners (plus Mark for the first 20 minutes) is available for download to PEL Citizens. The format is like a PEL episode, but it received less editing and features more glitches in the audio. Go sign up to get it. Note that the discussion is very spoilerific from the outset, so I’d recommend reading the text first. It’s pretty short and fast-paced, and shouldn’t take you very long.

Next month's reading for the group is Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, if you'd like to join us. We'll record a discussion on it around Jan. 6. Read about the book.

-Paul Harris


  1. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Just finished City of Glass. I can see how this book is getting at the nature of reality, identity through writing and differance, etc. However I am not motivated enough to either critique the work or read anything else. I would rather read Derrida. With Cormack McCarthy, it always feels like something is going on that matters, and that is intriguing to think about–no so for me with City of Glass :(

  2. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Having just finished listening to the Not School Group Report on Paul Auster’s Novella, “City of Glass,” I was much more interested in their intelligent and meaningful dialogue than the book itself–because of the personal. I think the comment about Auster being Post-structuralist explains most of it, if post structural means anti-structural and even anti-meaning in a more nihilistic sense.

    I take Auster’s words at end of City of Glass where he confesses that he is a writer behaving badly, as truth. I sense that he has a highly structured approach to make his writing not only a linguistic exercise, but even a specific impossibility for the reader to relate or identify with either the story line or the characters, relentlessly forcing the reader to come up with her own meaning–and even that is structured to come up nil.

    I would distinguish this emphasis from deconstruction of Derrida wherein he speaks against the structuralists of the time in order to balance out the value of creativity and spontaneity. He certainly is not nihilistic and gets pretty passionate about justice, etc.

    All of you in the Not School for City of Glass made my day. Look forward to you reviewing more literature in the future if you hang together :)

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