In general, stories maintain stability and structure by the use of relatively consistent characters and distinctions amongst the (along with a variety of other key elements). Paul Auster’s City of Glass initially seems to be falling in line, albeit in a more confusing way than others. However, by the middle of the short novel there seems to be something different—and very confusing—that Auster is attempting to show his readers. Auster discretely leaves hints for the reader to gradually realize that the various characters are actually aspects of a single person.
At first, it seems that Daniel Quinn is simply an author with the penname William Wilson who pretends to be Paul Auster. Although this is odd, it’s straightforward and doesn’t provoke much questioning, unless of course, you’re aware of the relevance of the name “William Wilson”. Edgar Allen Poe’s short story William Wilson revolves around a boy named William who encounters another student who is frighteningly similar in many ways to himself. Eventually this leads to these two boys being one in the same. Paul Auster’s choice to call him William Wilson may seem irrelevant at the onset of the story but as the reader continues, this connection to Poe’s doppelganger begins to stand out more and more.
In addition to the reference to Poe’s work, the story of Don Quixote and Quinn’s work with it provides even more reason to believe that Quinn is actually a manifestation of multiple characters. “The theory that I present is that he is actually a combination of four different people.” (97). If this idea were to stand alone in comparison with the rest of the book, the reader could overlook it and just think that Auster really enjoyed Don Quixote and decided to incorporate his character in his own work. However, when the reader sees this along with other similar hints, it cannot be overlooked.
It only takes three more pages to find Auster’s next clue. When Quinn meets the author Paul Auster and his family, the young boy (who is also named Daniel) says, “Everybody’s Daniel!” and Quinn responds, “That’s right. I’m you and you’re me.” (100). Needless to say, this is calling attention to the potential for a blurring amongst various characters. The next logical step is to take these separate hints and attempt to apply them to the characters themselves. This process could result in a combination of two characters, or many more.
The combination that stood out most was between the older Stillman and Quinn. The simple way that Auster chose to write about them is the first notion of their connection. Chapter 10 starts with, “Stillman was gone now. (90) Chapter 11 starts with, “Quinn was nowhere now.” (102). It seems unreasonable to think this is sheer coincidence—Auster’s talent as a writer would allow him to write two very distinct introductions for these men if he so desired. However, he was trying to convey a message with something as simple as the structure of a sentence. Once again, the connection is made stronger as the reader continues.
“[Stillman] was a speck, a punctuation mark, a brick in an endless wall of bricks.” (90). “It was at though [Quinn] had melted into the walls of the city”. (114). Once again, this connection cannot be overlooked as a simple coincidence. Auster strategically repeats very similar ideas to encourage the reader to think about the reality of the characters. Auster’s attention to detail in this regard, along with his ambiguity in other regards allows the reader to create a character of his/her own.
Now, we can look back to the doppelganger he provides of Stillman at the train station. With more insight into the story, this confusing encounter serves to leave a pocket of doubt in the story. Perhaps all along this man that Quinn was following around New York City wasn’t the “real” Stillman because all along he is Stillman himself. If there were a definite Stillman, there would have been less room for interpretation. Similarly, when Auster (in the book) tells Quinn of Stillman’s death, it is too odd to simply accept. How did people know that he died in mid air as he jumped off the bridge? Was it even who they thought it was?
Among a short 130 pages, Auster successfully creates a maze of characters that could lead to a variety of conclusions. Although he plants clues for the reader, he never provides a definite answer to the puzzle. Some people may argue that the characters should be taken at face value and maybe that is the case, but the interesting part about Paul Auster’s style is that there doesn’t have to be one answer.