Before Cassandra Clare’s City of Glass, there was Paul Auster’s. The first short installment of The New York Trilogy, City of Glass is both a mystery and an anti-mystery. The main character of the novel cranks out mystery novels like James Patterson, but admits that most such novels are poorly written and don’t involve the kind of higher thinking required with “literature.” They’re purely pleasure reading.
But City of Glass is both literature and mystery novel. As with all Auster novels, it is about more than its plot. Sure, there is a man named Stillman who locked his son in a dark room for most of his childhood and is now being released from prison. And yes, the main character, Quinn, is hired to follow Stillman in order to protect his horribly damaged son from harm. But these elements soon just become technicalities of the story instead of its meat.
It might annoy some readers that less attention is paid to plot than the writing itself. I call it an anti-mystery because after awhile it isn’t very mysterious—it doesn’t seem to matter what happens to the main characters. And the truly mysterious elements of the story are never really solved.
In fact, Auster raises more questions than he answers. The book is very aware of itself, and so is Auster—there is a character named after him who is also a writer, but at the same time there is an “I” introduced right at the end of the novel. As such, Auster doesn’t fail to explore his love of doubling and mirroring, but after awhile it becomes a bit too much. It’s hard to be invested in a character when you’re not really sure who you’re reading about.
At its core, though, the book is about language. The characters are continually writing and trying to find the perfect words to describe things. Stillman is obsessed with the Tower of Babel and finding man’s natural language—what we would speak if we were never taught to speak. And in the end, Auster asks the crucial language: when one runs out of words, what is left?
While the questions Auster asks are interesting, and his ideas are at times even mind-blowing, I felt the writing lacked urgency. Since the plot was so thin, there wasn’t much to keep me reading. There were times when Auster inserted long monologues on religion and texts and language, and I wondered why it was all important. And when I did get to the end, I felt very unsatisfied. All that… for this?
Perhaps I would have liked the book better if there was an even balance between existential questions and thrilling mystery. Or perhaps I’m just not smart enough to understand it. But for all the talk about finding the perfect language, I’m not sure Auster himself found it. I would personally like his writing to be more accessible, and less ostentatious.
My rating: 3 stars