Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Anti-Mystery

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.

Works Cited

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.

1 comment:

  1. The introduction with Miles Davis and the conventions of mysteries was good. I often try to think of Mysteries (like Science Fiction) as a variation on gothic fiction, which revolves around a peculiar setting in which some other time (usually the past, occasionally the future) threatens to invade/breach "ordinary" reality; mysteries are a genre defined by an inescapable, haunting past, which needs to be unraveled and explained *as* past (that is, the past needs to be placed firmly into the past, and to stop haunting us. But that's strictly an aside.

    In paragraphs two and three, especially three, you dismiss COG as a standard mystery, without first doing a good job of defining how it would work as a standard mystery. The first thing I'd point out is that in any standard mystery Peter Stillman's life would, in fact, come under threat; the older Peter Stillman would probably be the criminal, but possibly a red herring; Quinn would either need to protect or avenge Stillman, probably multiple times in multiple ways; also, the bizarre, metaphysical threats would need to become rationalized/simplified.

    Maybe you'd see it differently - that's not my point. My point is that we need to define how the novel *could* work as mystery, and then where it diverges from that template, for its nature as *anti* mystery to be clarified.

    The final couple paragraphs are pretty vague. I like the idea of mystery as defined by the manifestation of truth, but that makes me ask whether it's really the case that we can't see this novel as doing exactly that - although probably the truths in this case would be truths about Quinn, or about the nature of language, rather than truths about crime (although what if the crime being investigated here is really the Fall?)

    You're wrestling with a big, interesting topic, but your grasp of what a mystery would look like with this story isn't convincing or developed enough to really help us understand it, then, as anti-mystery.