Form is essential to recognizing and classifying art, but it also serves as a threshold for new classifications and genres. With the form and conventions which defined jazz up until the late 1960s existing as they did, Miles Davis was able to break ground and create a new genre of music entitled jazz fusion with his albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Relating this concept to our topic, Michael Cohen writes in his book Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction, “Mystery fiction appeals because of the way its authors use its conventions” (Cohen:25). Additionally, Cohen writes, “By its very nature, mystery fiction depends on secrets about crime… being first hidden and then revealed”(Cohen:27). Using Cohen and my basic knowledge of mystery stories as a basis, I believe that Paul Auster’s City of Glass is not mystery fiction, but anti-mystery fiction evinced by its reluctance to adhere to the former’s conventions and Auster’s descriptions of mystery fiction on page eight.
First, let us examine the protagonist, Quinn, and his contiguity with the traditional mystery fiction detective, or lack thereof. There is the obvious starting point that Quinn is not a detective at all, but he is just impersonating one. This, however, does not break any convention because he is still serving as the plot’s detective since we progress through the story via his perspective. According to Cohen, “the classical detective is a person extraordinary in perception” (Cohen: 28), and Auster shares this opinion when he writes, “The detective is one who looks, who listens…” (Auster: 8). Unlike this, Quinn is an individual who seeks to get lost and become unaware of where he is, he cannot decipher the gender of the individual on the phone, and he finds difficulty in staying engaged while tracking the elder Stillman.
Next, the obvious necessity for a mystery is, well, a mystery. In City of Glass, the emphasis isn’t so much on a singular question, as with traditional “whodunit” works, but rather the entire story itself. With each new detail, more questions are raised, and rather than the audience gaining evidence and clues until a final revelation, City of Glass is more like a slow deterioration of certainty, with the reader questioning anything and everything. Auster addresses this idea on page eight when he writes, “the center of the book shifts with each event that propels it forward.” Yet, in City of Glass, the center of the book doesn’t shift with each event (such as the appearance of the second elder Stillman at the station, the discovery that the real Paul Auster is an author, and the disappearance of Virginia Stillman and her husband), the entire grasp the audience has of the story shifts, in some cases discrediting much of what came before, making it nearly impossible for the audience to form what Cohen defines as “a connected series of events” (Cohen: 29). Therefore, it is inconceivable for City of Glass to conform to traditional mystery fiction conventions since the “pieces” are not that of a traditional mystery: there is no clear crime, no criminal (only the anticipation of one), and no concrete trail to follow.
Finally, without these aforementioned “pieces”, City of Glass could not have a traditional mystery’s revelation of the truth, but there still remains the possibility of answering questions and consolidating the tale. However, Auster avoids the latter by having the red notebook become obscure and, in doing so, does not form the very “circumference” he describes on page eight, and never allows for the audience’s unanimous acceptance of truth which Cohen describes (Cohen: 29). This is in stark contrast to the conventional ending of mysteries; it is another reason why City of Glass is an anti-mystery.
City of Glass may be an anti-mystery, but it still remains a mystery. Abandoning traditional conventions, the reader (along with Quinn) has the task of deciphering what is reality, what is pertinent, and, frankly, what is the point. I see the mystery manifesting itself within the detective and not so much with what the detective is interacting with. Most of our questions begin to reveal themselves in relation to Quinn himself and it becomes difficult to even trust his observations. In the end, City of Glass does not reveal an absolute truth, but loose ends and the opportunity for debate amongst its readers.
Cohen, Michael. Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction. New Jersey: Associated
University Press, 2000.
Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.