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Detectives going astray - On the road with Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe and Daniel Quinn


The following text deals with the phenomenon of the detective novel and its deconstruction in general and with the novel "City of Glass" by Paul Auster in specific. But don't worry, in due time enough information will be provided to understand the text even without knowledge of the novel. However, if you want to embark on a crazy journey through New York alongside one of the most unusual detectives in the history of literature, you should read the book first. It's not very long, in English it's even available at a reasonable price as a Reclam, but otherwise you can certainly get it second-hand on the relevant sites. I promise you: it is a literary trip without equal!

So let's dive into the world of detective novels and try to solve the case of the mysterious "City of Glass". Whether we will succeed is written in the stars, but as one of the great masters of the genre would say: "The game is afoot."


Let's begin the case by observing the big picture. In this case the genre around which everything revolves. For well over a century, it has been the genre that we choose for a few relaxing and stimulating hours of reading: The detective novel. Every one of us has read a novel, seen a movie, belonged to it. Intelligent detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple or Hercules Poirot have been thrilling the world for a long time, many of us grew up with the legendary radio plays of the Drei ??? (a german series about three american teenager- detectives). The detective novel is one of the most popular genres in literature and is subject to strict rules, which we will take a closer look at below.

"The detective novel or the detective narrative are characterized in terms of content by the fact that they leave the closer circumstances of a crime that has occurred (almost exclusively a murder) almost exclusively in the dark and represent the primarily intellectual efforts of a detective to illuminate this darkness" (Nusser 1992, p.3).

This quote from Peter Nusser's study of the detective novel summarizes in a nutshell the core of a detective story. At the center is always the detective who tries to bring order into a disordered structure. The genre rules of the classic detective novel are very clearly established. Authors such as Edgar Allen Poe (The Murders in the Rue Morgue 1841), Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes 1886-1927) and Agatha Christie (e.g. The novels with Hercule Poirot 1920-1975) have shaped this genre and led it to perfection.

Anne Holzapfel describes the detective novel as divided into two stories. The first story is that of the crime/ or the criminal. It takes place before the novel begins and leaves clues and traces. "In the second story these signs are given meaning by the detective, i.e. reader" (Holzapfel 1996, p.44). This already indicates that the involvement of the reader in the search for the solution of the case, is an important concern of the detective novel.

"You know my methods, Watson. There was not one of them which I did not apply to the inquiry. And it ended by my discovering traces, but very different ones from those which I had expected." (Arthur Conan Doyle, The crooked Man)

The detective in the classic detective novel is usually an eccentric person who, with the help of a companion (a Watson character), solves a criminal case in a closed group into which he/she and the companion character enter from the outside. The investigation consists of empirically gathering evidence and interrogating the suspects. In the process, false alibis and red herrings (tracks that lead nowhere) keep popping up. At the end of the novel, the detective gathers the suspects and announces the solution to the case, which he has achieved through his considerable intellectual abilities. By solving the case, he orders the chaos that the crime did cause. The detective is not emotionally involved and returns to his usual life after the solution.

"My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world." (Doyle, The Sign of the Four)

Anne Holzapfel points out in her essay on "City of Glass" that the incentive that the detective novel holds for the reader is that he measures himself against the detective's intellect and tries to solve the case just as quickly, if not before him (see Holzapfel 1996, p.12). In this respect, the detective novel is an intellectual game. The detective measures himself against the murderer by reading the clues left by the murderer. The reader, in turn, measures his intellect against the detective's by trying to read the clues faster or better.

"Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell." (Doyle, The Copper Breeches)

The Watson character takes on the role of a medium between the detective and the reader. Through his inquiries, the detective is forced to speak his thoughts and thus make them comprehensible to the reader. At the same time, this view also limits the reader, since it is always possible that the Watson character overlooks or misinterprets clues (see.Nusser1992). In the best case, different leads are presented to him neutrally, but "which one is the right one is subject to the reader's assessment and thus to error" (Nusser 1992, p.29f).

"I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. When I said that you stimulated me I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided toward the truth." (Doyle, The Hound of Baskervilles)

From the genre of the Classic Detective Novel, a new form of detective fiction emerged, especially in 1940s America, characterized by much more action, shadier characters, and more hard-hitting detectives. One of the pioneers of these hard-boiled novels was Raymond Chandler and his novels about the character of the private detective Philip Marlowe.

The hard-boiled novel is a special form of the detective novel that emerged primarily in America in the second half of the last century. "The hard-boiled novel's plot is set in large American cities, whose atmosphere offers space for corruption and crime" (Holzapfel 1996, p.19). Thus, the detective's environment is no longer one in which crime is an isolated incident. Instead of restoring social order by solving the case, the detective is therefore only able to restore a small part of the world. In contrast to the classic detective novel, the hard-boiled detective (Private Eye) is unable to maintain a distance from the case. He thus puts himself in danger and cannot return to his normal life until the case is solved. Matching the lack of distance to the case, there is also no distance between reader and detective - "the entire hard boiled novel is narrated by the private eye himself" (Holzapfel 1996, p.20). The result of these structural changes is that the novels have a greater action component, but the intellectual race between reader and detective is relegated to the background.

"I was doing a cheap sneaky job for people I didn't like, but that's what you hire out for, chum. They pay the bills, you dig the dirt." (Raymond Chandler, Playback)

And then the last decades of the 20th century dawned and with them currents like post-structuralism. Many authors were now concerned with the deconstruction of traditional literary genres. The detective novel was a grateful target to take it apart to its basic structure and to play with its parts. Precisely because of its fixed rules and predictable structures, it lends itself particularly well to deconstruction and the concomitant incorporation of several meta-levels into the new product thus created.

The anti-detective novel hollows out the genre of the detective novel, as is typical of a secondary style. It achieves this by playing with the conventions of the genre and thus with the expectations of the reader. This often takes on parodic features (Holzapfel 1996, p.23). Chance becomes the determining principle of form, which is why it is no longer possible for the detective to establish any form of order. The consequence is mostly the downfall of the detective and the frustration of the reader, as he fails at the novel with his reading habit trained by the detective novel. However, Anne Holzapfel warns against overlooking the fact that the structure of the anti-detective novel is by no means random:

"Since there is no order establishing center in the form of a detective that reaches the solution through logic, chaos and irrationality prevail over their respective opposites. However, above all this seeming chaos lies a well thought out structure. This, in turn, shows its own order and ensures that the anti-detective novel is stable" (Holzapfel 1996, p.26).


So now that we've explored the basic premise, it's time to turn to the center of our case: "City of Glass." I think reading the novel is worthwhile even if you already know the plot, but all those who want to read it without bias should stop the article here and continue reading only after they have read the book.


"New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. "(Auster 2001, p.4)

The novel "City of Glass" was published in 1985 and is the first part of Paul Auster's New York Triology. The protagonist of the novel is Daniel Quinn, an author of mystery novels (Auster 2001, p.5. He writes novels about the detective Max Work, which he publishes under the name William Wilson. Through a misdirected phone call, he is hired as a private detective to shadow a man (Peter Stillman Sr.) from a Peter Stillmann jr. Actually, Stillman jr. wanted to hire a man named Paul Auster (yes that is the author's name too). Quinn poses as Auster and tails Stillman Sr. or rather the man he thinks he is. At the train station, where he should see Stillmann Sr for the first time, he is faced with the choice of which of two almost identical looking men he wants to follow. He decides to follow the poorly dressed man, because he fits better to the image he has made of Stillman Sen. For days, Quinn follows this man as he walks around New York, meticulously noting everything in his red notebook, only to find that the paths he chooses cause him to run the words TOWER OF BABEL into the map of the city. Desperate, he tracks down the real Paul Auster and discovers that he is a writer who writes essays on the authorship of Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote." At the same time, he loses Stillmann Sr. And decides instead to watch the apartment of Stillman Jr. For weeks he is absorbed in these observations, until he loses not only everything he owns, but also himself. The novel ends with the narrator reporting that he found Quinn's notebook in the Stillmans' empty apartment, but no trace of Quinn exists. He has reconstructed history, the narrator says, through the notes in this book. Whether we want to believe this is up to us.

Just as Quinn gets lost in New York, we readers are in danger of getting lost in the novel City of Glass. Later in the novel, when Quinn follows Stillman Sr. through the city, he responds to this lostness by precisely noting the paths Stillman Sr. takes. He reads and interprets these paths to bring order to the chaos of the case. The reader of the novel is also "in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and makes sense to them" (Auster 2001, p.12). If one wants to venture an interpretation of "City of Glass", one can follow many different paths. However, this tracking is meant to deal with the story on a more meta-level and to examine more closely the complex connection between the roles of reader, author, and detective.

For Daniel Quinn, the term private eye involves a play on words, as the i can also stand for investigator and I. However, I believe that Auster takes this word play further in his novel and includes i interpretation (Auster 2001, p.12). If this is the case, Auster plays not only with the expectations of the practiced detective novel reader, but also with those of the literary hermeneuticist, leading both into a labyrinth with no exit.

II.a. Paul Auster (the Real)

"...the role of the writer as the person who describes events, promises control over the confusing experiences of everyday life. In the ideal case writing helps the author find explanations which are relevant both to himself and his social environment - just like the detective finds explanations for events through his work" (Springer 2001, p.99).

Madleine Sorapure points out in her essay "The Detective and the Author: City of Glass" that in the classic detective novel the detective and the reader try to get into the position of the author as an omniscient authority (Sorapure 1995, p.71). The presence of the author thus promises exactly this control Carsten Springer speaks of in the quoted paragraph. At the same time, the author himself seems to try to understand his surroundings through writing. This understanding of the author as a detective who tries to solve the mysteries of life through writing is embodied in "City of Glass" by Quinn, who is a detective as an author, with his red notebook taking a central role in his investigation.

But what does it mean for a reader when the author of the novel no longer sees himself as an omniscient mastermind who constructs a self-contained world in which everything is logically comprehensible, but rather reflects other texts through his text?

Paul Auster always writes his texts with influences from other authors, he himself understands them as his co-writers (cf. Peacock 2010, p.5ff). Thus, he does not claim for himself originality or an all-encompassing understanding of the text (Peacock 2010, p.10), he takes a back seat to the intertextual construct of his novel. Auster sees the readers themselves as the actual "writer" as they write their own story through his interpretation (Holzapfel 1996, p.52). He thus acts in the sense of Roland Barthes who wrote in his famous essay "The Death of the Author": "The birth of the reader is to be paid for with the death of the author" (Barthes 2002, p.110). At the same time, he also plays with this demand, for example, by writing himself into the text. When Daniel Quinn confronts Peter Stillman Sr. in person for the first time (he speaks to him three times under different pseudonyms during his shadowing), he introduces himself to him with his real name. Stillman replies, "I like your name enormously, Mr.Quinn. It flies in so many little directions at once" (Auster 2001, p.130).

The image of the name flying in all directions reflects the novel "City of Glass" itself. The text offers a dialogue with many other literary texts, so it is open to all sides. It is up to the readers to decide which dialogue they want to enter. Thus, every reader of "City of Glass" is also an author, precisely because they read and interpret the literary traces, or prioritizes certain aspects. Through this process, however, they also become a detective, and the novel itself becomes a case.

II.b. Daniel Quinn

"As for Quinn there is little to detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance" (Auster 2001, p.3).

What does seem to be of importance, however, is the information that Quinn enjoys walking around New York, writing detective novels, and has long been an avid reader of the genre. His interest in the detective novel is grounded in the "sense of plentitude and economy" (Auster 2001, p.11) that defines the books. As previously described, in the detective novel, each piece has its justification. The plot functions like a jigsaw puzzle in which each piece has a place and is necessary to make a whole. This sense of purpose seems to attract Quinn and stand in direct contrast to the emptiness and meaninglessness of his life.

The decision to write detective novels also stems from a sense of economy. The genre of the detective novel does not meet his literary aspirations, which is why he writes only under the pseudonym William Wilson (a reference to Edgar Allan Poe's story of the same name) and does not identify himself as an author to anyone. "Because he did not consider himself to be the author of what he wrote, he did not feel responsible for it and therefor was not compelled to defend it in his heart" (Auster 2001, p.5). Quinn writes the novels, but does not see himself as the author. ("...he never went so far as to believe that he and Wiliam Willson were the same man" (Auster 2001, p.6)). This distancing from the author role can be read in the sense of Roland Barthes, and Quinn can be understood as a "modern writer" (Barthes 2002, p.107) who exists only in the moment of writing. This is supported by his interest in the stories with which his text enters into dialogue. "What interested him about the stories he wrote, was not their relation to the world but their relation to other stories" (Auster 2001, p.11). He also shares this interest with Paul Auster (the Real) himself.

However, one can also assume that Quinn sees himself more as a reader of his books and less as an author. He does not establish a relationship with William Wilson, who takes the role of author. Rather, he describes him as a bridge that connects him and his detective Max Work. "His private-eye narrator, Max Work, had suffered through a number of beatings and narrow escapes, and Quinn was feeling somewhat exhausted by his efforts" (Auster 2001, p.8). Max Work is thus a detective of the American hard-boiled novel and the books are told from the first-person perspective, as is typical of this genre. The statement that Quinn feels exhausted by Work's adventures points to the relationship readers can form with the detective (see above).

Quinn thus fulfills a complicated dual function as both reader and author of his texts.

The case Quinn is entrusted with opens up an opportunity for him to fill the emptiness of his life with the logic and meaningfulness he values in the detective novel. Carsten Springer describes this as follows: "...the protagonist of City of Glass uses the literary model in the way of an integrating 'metanarrative' for his own disrupted life. Quinn slips into the role of his character Max Work (even while he poses as the detective "Paul Auster" his model is Work), who in turn is modelled on literary detective heroes"(Springer 2001, p.98). Quinn thus adopts another pseudonym - Paul Auster. Like William Wilson, this pseudonym is just a name for Quinn, while Max Work is a role he slips into. Especially at the beginning of the case, he acts as Max Work would act. Quinn's passivity is emphasized linguistically. For example, on the way to the Stillmans: "Nevertheless, as time wore on he found himself doing a good imitation of a man preparing to go out"(Auster 2001, p.19) and when he arrived at their house: "He found himself sitting on a sofa, alone in the living room" (Auster 2001, p.23). Shortly after, he wonders what Max Work would think about the situation: "Then he thought about what Max Work might have been thinking, has he been here" (Auster 2001, p.23). Consequently, Mrs. Stillman reminds him of a typical Feme Fatale á la Chandler (Peacock 2010, p.52).

"From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away." (Raymond Chandler, The High Window)

In what follows, it is revealed that there is no crime he is supposed to solve. The crime, the abuse Peter Stillman Jr. suffered, has already been solved and punished. Quinn's job is to shadow Stillman's father to prevent a possible further crime. Peter Stillman Jr. tells a puzzling story, full of repetition, nonsense sentences and contradictions. The many names he gives himself and the other characters in his story, as well as the constant reassurances that these are not their true names, indicate that for Stillman Jr. language has lost its expressive power. He sees them as nothing more than interchangeable, empty husks. Shortly thereafter, Virginia Stillman tells her version of the story, which, however, can also only express her subjective view, i.e. it is an interpretation. Quinn, however, proceeds from this version of history in what follows.

Quinn now no longer acts like Work. Rather, the next steps seem like those of a writer/reader. He buys a notebook; since he always writes with pen and paper, this is a common process for him. With the act of writing, he wants to stabilize the situation (Barone 1995, p.16). "In that way, perhaps, things might not get out of control" (Auster 2001, p.64). In his apartment, he empties his desk, undresses, and puts the notebook "in the center" (Auster 2001, p.65). This description refers to the first chapter explaining Quinn's interest in detective novels: "Everything becomes's essence; the center of the book shifts with each event that propels it forward. The center then, is everywhere, and no circumference can be drawn until the book has come to it's end" (Auster 2001, p.12). Quinn now tries to stabilize the case and thus his whole world through writing (Barone 1995, p.16). Accordingly, in the world of mystery novels, which he himself so reveres, the end of the notebook would mean the solution of the case. Symbolically, then, he places the notebook at the center of the case, and on the first page he places not the initials WW or PA but his own - DQ. He thus starts from himself in his recording of the events. Accordingly, the first entries of the notebook are also rather personal associations, such as the mental connection between Peter and his dead son. The next morning, Quinn goes to the library for research. He reads Stillman Sr.'s book, so first deals with the background of the case, one could also say with the secondary text to the primary text Stillman.

Then the actual shadowing begins. The first decision Quinn has to make is which man most resembles Stillman Sen. He picks one out of a myriad of possibilities, but then has to discover that there is a second variation of that man.

"Directly behind Stillman, heaving into view just inches behind his right shoulder, another man stopped, took a lighter out of his pocket, and lit a cigarette. His face was the exact twin of Stillman's" (Auster 2001, p.98).

In the first chapter, the detective is described as the one "who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that pulls all these things together and make sense of them" (Auster 2001, p.12). The detective, then, decides on an interpretation of the case, and since the world of the detective novel is logically and efficiently constructed, his solution is the only accurate one. But Quinn correctly recognizes that a factor comes into play here that the detective never has to deal with in the classic detective novel: "chance" (Auster 2001, p.99). And in a world full of coincidences, error is inevitable. Following the wrong track can happen at most to the reader in the classic detective novel. So the detective observes contexts, questions statements and collects evidence - the hermeneuticist proceeds in the same way. The text, however, is ambiguous, and each interpreter follows different traces, comes to different conclusions, because each starts at a different point. The men resemble each other externally, but one looks poor and lost, while the other fits the image of a well-to-do, determined man. Quinn decides to follow the Stillman, who is more in line with his idea of the case. For Quinn, this is the man who reflects his own isolation (Peacock 2010, p.56). In the end, however, this is an arbitrary decision.

Quinn follows Stillman Sen. around town over the next few days. James Peacock elaborates that for Auster, walks represent a way of thinking. "Thus to walk through space is to think a sequence of thoughts that create a mental journey or story" (Peacock 2010, p.58). Stillman's paths are thus writing that Quinn reads and interprets. New York's streets become pages, an image that is revisited at the end of the novel when the narrator describes the snow falling on the city, turning it into blank white pages (Auster 2001, p.222). However, "reading itself can be a paranoid process, a constant search for meaningful patterns and answers where in fact there may be none" (Peacock 2010, p.58). For Quinn, Stillman's ways must have meaning because in his view of the world as a detective novel, everything has meaning. However, when Quinn confronts Stillman Sr. three times, he is provided with three different answers that only raise more questions. Just as Auster would not provide an answer to the question of what is happening in "City of Glass," Stillman cannot provide a satisfactory answer for his actions. However, this contradicts the order Quinn is determined to establish. The idea/ interpretive approach that Quinn has applied to the case crumbles and then vanishes into thin air. Stillman Sen. literally dies in the air, as we learn later in the novel.

Stripped of his interpretive approach, he turns to a supposed expert: Paul Auster, the detective who was supposed to be handling the case. But he is a dead end, since he is not a detective but a writer. He keeps Quinn aware of the emptiness and futility of his world. The encounter with Auster shakes Quinn's attempt to find a guiding idea in his world. He wanders around New York and turns his attention to the homeless, who seem like faint images of Stillman Sen. but no longer suffice as a unifying idea.

He takes up position in front of the origin, the Stillmans' apartment. Here, however, he can find just as little of an answer. When finally everything slips away from him, the case and his existence, he goes into the apartment, gets rid of his clothes again and only notes observations and conclusions in his notebook. "Having failed to crack the case in "reality," his only recourse is to text" (Peacock 2010, p.46). As at the beginning of the case, he tries to stabilize his world through writing. He cannot let go of the idea that everything in the world must have meaning and a place in the big picture. But without a unifying idea, he despairs of the multiplicity of interpretations. He finds connections that strive in all directions. In doing so, he falls for all the red herrings that the novel sets up, such as the number 69 that appears again and again or the play with names and literary allusions. In parts, he constructs connections and wonders if the girl at the train station is the new tenant of his apartment. In the constructed world of the detective novel, such a thing would be conceivable. For Quinn, however, these considerations can no longer be purposeful.

"What will happen when there are no more pages in the red notebook?" At the end of the book there must be the solution to the case. Quinn started from this premise at the beginning. At the end of the red notebook, however, there is not the answer, only more questions.

II. c. We, the readers

The detective novel is an intellectual game for us as readers. This game works by having a question at the beginning of the text and the detective and reader finding the answer as the investigation progresses. This question-answer scheme is fundamental to building suspense (cf. Junkerjürgen, 2002). If the question is answered at the end of the novel, it satisfies the readers*. Thus, reading a detective novel can be enjoyable. Readers approach "City of Glass" with this expectation. In the first chapter, the programmatic statements about the detective novel point them to the way they should read the novel: They must grasp, evaluate, and interpret all the clues just as the detective does (Auster 2001, p.2). Only in this way can they come to the solution of the case or to an understanding about the book.

By using the inclusive we, the narrator also invites the reader*s participation in the mystery from the beginning. While he warns them that the text will not provide an answer(Auster 2001, p.3), he also points out that every clue can count. Auster, however, plays so skillfully with their expectations that they nevertheless falls into the trap with their eyes open. Readers (especially those interested in literary studies) complete a similar journey as Quinn. Involved by the inclusive We and challenged to puzzle along, they try to solve the case. However, the case seems to relate less to the Stillmans than to the mystery that the novel itself represents. Paul Auster spins a web of intertextual references and allusions that keep the reader spinning in. The programmatic sentence in the first chapter "What interested him about the stories he wrote was not their relation to the world but their relation to other stories. " puts them directly on the trail of literary references, which, however, turn out to be red herrings. Readers who go in search of clues in the City of Glass will inevitably get lost. They, like Quinn, are doomed to fail (Peacock 2010, p.45).

Auster co-writes other authors, meaning that they are incorporated into his writing. The three authors that feature heavily in this novel are Miguel de Cervantes, Edgar Allen Poe, and Samuel Beckett. There are also several references to Lewis Carroll. In addition, there is a striking number symbolism around the number 69, references to an identity disorder in Quinn, an elaborate game with the names and pseudonyms used, and to the complete confusion of the readers, a character named Paul Auster appears who has some biographical similarities to the real Paul Auster, but does not claim to be the author of the novel.

At the end of the novel, the narrator speaks up and claims to have pieced together the events of the novel based only on the notes in the red notebook. "The narrators appearance forces the reader to revisit City of Glass and check it's reliability" (Peacock 210, p.63). Readers* recognize that the narrator is unreliable to the highest degree. For example, there are repeated reports of Quinn's dreams, which he forgets the next morning and therefore cannot have written down at all. The realization that the narrator is not to be trusted calls into question all the possibilities of interpretation that the readers have worked out up to this point. They can no longer say what is true about the story and must decide for themselves what the text means to them. In this, they resemble Quinn, who must decide from Stillman Jr.'s story what is truth and what is a lie. Only Quinn relies on the version that Virginia Stillman told him. By realizing that the narrator cannot be trusted, the readers* themselves lack this authority.

The novel makes readers realize that a clear interpretation of the text (and thus perhaps of any text) is impossible.

II.d. Paul Auster (the fictional) and Don Quixote

"It was a man who opened the apartment door. (...) In his right hand, fixed between his thumb and his first two fingers, he held an uncapped fountain pen, still poised in a writing position" (Auster 2001, p.158).

Auster has a character appear in "City of Glass" who bears his name and shares some biographical details, such as the name of his wife or his profession. The fictional Auster is writing a series of essays on authorship in Don Quixote. In them, he assumes that Don Quixote only feigned his madness, that the Arabic manuscript was written by his companions, and that Quixote himself, commissioned by Cervantes, translated the manuscript into Spanish.

After the visit to Auster, Quinn assumes that it was a mix-up of telephone numbers, and Stillman Jr. simply had the wrong number. However, Anne Holzapfel points out that the recommendation to hire Auster came from a man named Michael Saavedra, and the name refers to the author of Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Accordingly, the recommendation would not be an oversight, but a further linking of the reader-author-detective commonalities.

Daniel Quinn shares with Don Quixote his initials and his love for a particular literary genre. Don Quixote loses his understanding of what is fiction and what is reality. The same mistake happens to Quinn in "City of Glass." He tries to impose the order of the detective novel on his world, which is structured by chance. Just like Don Quixote, he must fail. The reader who tries to interpret City of Glass will also fail.

The novel accomplishes exactly what the fictional Paul Auster suggests Don Quixote's friends did as a motive for recording his deeds: "The idea was to hold up a mirror to Don Quixote's madness, to record each of his absurd and ludicrous delusions, so that when he finally read the book himself, he would see the error of his ways"(Auster 2001, p.169). Whether one wants to take the last twist and, analogous to the idea that Don Quixote is only faking his madness, assume that Auster himself writes the notebook and slips it to the narrator, just as Quixote translates the manuscript to Cervantes (cf. Sorapure 1995, p.85), is up to the reader.

III The Resolution?

"City of Glass" is a title that is as ambiguous as the text that hides behind it. The city through which Quinn wanders seems to be a hall of mirrors. It teems with doppelgangers and the perennial question of lies and truth.

Likewise, the novel also traps us readers in its maze. If one wishes, one can follow every single clue, and Auster leaves many different clues. For the literary scholar in particular, the attempt to find a solution holds great appeal, partly because they are used to interpreting a text, and partly because many of the clues are literary in nature. The desire to solve the case shifts for readers to trying to find an interpretation for these numerous clues. They want to bring order to the novel. But Auster offers only dead ends/red herrings. Sooner or later they have to realize that it will not be possible to weave all the threads into a single strand. At most, one can follow individual threads. There is no satisfactory result.

Quinn, as the protagonist of an anti-detective novel, is unable to make this realization. He, too, tries to interpret the events and bring them to a unified order, and he, too, fails. But for him there is no going back. Bound by the conventions of his genre, he cannot move on with his life until he has solved the case. Since that doesn't happen, he simply ceases to exist. Auster plays with these genre conventions and takes them to extremes. The result is a convoluted confusion that offers more than one solution.

At the same time, the text also questions the relationship of reader, author, and detective/text. Ultimately, it does not offer a solution here either, but it seems as if the author steps back in favor of the relationship between reader and detective/text.

To claim that one can interpret this novel comprehensively does not seem possible to me. Each reader must decide for himself or herself an aspect that he or she particularly prioritizes. Each reflection of the novel (to stay in the image of the "City of Glass") shows up a bit differently. In this paper, I have focused primarily on what the ambiguity of the novel, means for the reader*s and also for Quinn. In this reading, the novel holds a mirror up to the hermeneuticist and also to the readers* of the detective novel.

It is, in the manner of Don Quixote, a cautionary tale not to look for hidden meaning in every word of a text.


At the end of our search for clues, then, is the realization that we cannot understand the novel because it is not meant to be understood. Is that a disappointment now? An argument not to pick up the book in the first place? I think not. Because maybe I am wrong, maybe there is a conclusive solution, a valid interpretation. Maybe you can solve everything and prove me wrong. "City of Glass" is not limited to an intellectual game between the detective and the reader. It is also an intellectual game that we play among ourselves. There is no boring straight path that we just didn't recognize, no overly intelligent Sherlock Holmes explaining to us at the end where we were wrong and he was right. In "City of Glass" we keep the chance to find a solution and I would like to encourage everyone to dare their own interpretation approach, the clues are all there...

As I said at the beginning: "The game is afoot".

signed: Schattenhaar

Lahadic, Juli 2023


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