How "City of Glass" Uses Postmodernism

Updated on October 9, 2019

“City of Glass”, the first novella in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, utilises unconventional techniques to display its setting, plot, and characters. Some of the techniques used in the book are postmodern literary techniques. In City of Glass, a disjointed narrative, paradoxical situations, and the unreliable narrator appear. Postmodern theories are based the idea that disorder and discord is something that can never be avoided, and play with the expectations a reader has gained from years of literary experiences, including the idea that author, narrator, and character should be separate. The authors do not directly insert themselves into the universes they create. Third-person narrators cannot influence the plot or mingle with the other characters. Characters are molded by the authors and observed by the narrators, interacting with neither. “City of Glass” uses postmodern techniques when presenting its characters, allowing the characters to be presented outside of the traditional roles of author, narrator, and character. Paul Auster is portrayed as a character as well as the author, which breaks the boundary between the author and the universe he creates. Daniel Quinn is the focaliser for a majority of the work, but becomes a focalised object in the last few pages, taking a supporting role in the narrative supposedly about him. The unnamed narrator constructs the story using the red notebook, becoming an author in his or her own right.


Who is Paul Auster?

Paul Auster is both the author of “City of Glass” and a character within it. The character of Auster is a writer. In the beginning of “City of Glass”, a character mentions the Paul Auster Detective Agency which is not managed by the character Auster. Later on, the main character Quinn tries to meet with the detective Auster but instead meets the character Auster. Character Auster lives in New York. “There was one Paul Auster in Manhattan, living on Riverside Drive- not far from Quinn’s own house.” (Page 110) According to the “About the Author” section, so does the author Auster. “He lives in Brooklyn, New York.” (n. pag.) However, Paul Auster the character lives in Manhattan, while Paul Auster the author is said to live in Brooklyn. Paul Auster the character sharing a name with the author implies that the author and the character Auster may be the same person.

New York City, the titular City of Glass

This uncertainty regarding if the author has written himself into the story creates another level of postmodern interpretation, as the character is no longer limited to the novel’s own universe. The character of Paul Auster in the New York of “City of Glass” can be interpreted as the author Paul Auster living in the real New York. The Paul Auster from the Paul Auster Detective Agency is left an enigma, and is never interacted with by any of the other characters, but the void left by the missing Detective Auster is eventually filled by Daniel Quinn.

About Daniel Quinn

Daniel Quinn is the character the narrative focuses on. All of the actions that occur in the plot are shown from Quinn’s perspective. The narrative highlights Quinn’s decisions and uses a third person limited perspective that limits itself to showing Quinn’s opinions of the situations he finds himself in. However, there are a few moments when “City of Glass” pulls away from Quinn’s perspective. The clearest example is in the last chapter. Near the end of the novella, there is a break in the text. Instead of indicating a shift in time, as most of the other breaks do, this indicates a shift in perspective. The story changes to the narrator’s perspective, and Quinn is no longer present in the narrative. The change in perspective causes Quinn to move from being the focaliser to being a focalised object. “Having heard him out, I began to feel angry that he had treated Quinn with such indifference.” (Page 157) This makes Quinn’s role in the events of the narrative feel much smaller, and makes Quinn feel less influential. The same technique is used in the very beginning of the story. The narrator discusses Quinn using language that would be reserved by other authors for secondary characters. “As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us.” (Page 1) In this quote, the indifferent language can make Quinn seem unimportant even though, as the protagonist, he has the largest role in the narrative. This creates the idea that the protagonist may not be as important as the traditional literary formula says he should be. Quinn changes between a protagonist role and a supporting role.

What is Postmodernism?

The narrator in traditional literature is usually restricted by one of two roles. Either the narrator is a first-person narrator, who is involved in all of the narrative, or the narrator is third person, and takes no part in the narrative. The narrator in “City of Glass” is most definitely a character, but does not take part in any of the events of the narrative. “I returned home from my trip to Africa in February, just hours before a snowstorm began to fall on New York.” (Page 157) This implies the narrator had been in another continent when everything leading up to that point was taking place. The narrator receives the red notebook from Auster, who, after becoming obsessed with Quinn, did not want to deal with the notebook itself. This explains why the narrator has been unreliable, knowing seemingly trivial details while not knowing others. The phrase “In his dream, which he later forgot…” (Page 10, et al) is used several times in the novel. This repetition enforces Quinn’s forgetfulness, but also heavily implies that the narrator knows the content of the dreams. At the beginning of chapter twelve, the narrator, who has previously known things Quinn has forgotten, becomes unsure of time. “A long time passed. Exactly how long it is impossible to say. Weeks certainly, but perhaps even months. The account of this period is less full than the author would have liked.” Allowing the narrator to admit that he or she doesn’t know how much time has passed when the narrator has made up the content of the dreams creates an element of narrative manipulation.

The narrator admits he or she does not know how much time has passed.
The narrator admits he or she does not know how much time has passed. | Source

The narrator claims to know things he or she never could, especially given the fact that he or she never met Quinn. The narrator has to reconstruct the story based on the contents of the red notebook. “Even the red notebook, which until now has provided a detailed account of Quinn’s experiences, is suspect.” It is possible that the narrator might have drawn information from talking with Auster, reading William Wilson’s novels and Stillman Sr.’s work, and looking in newspaper archives to fill in some of the details the red notebook was missing. Anything not found in these sources is conjecture, made up by the narrator. This could mean the narrator is egotistical or ignores his or her own mistakes. The narrator’s subtly defined personality allows the narrator to be flawed, and bridges the boundary between narrator and character. If the narrator were not a character, he or she would not be interacting with Paul Auster.

The author Paul Auster’s novella “City of Glass” uses an unusual relationship between character, author, and narrator. Postmodern techniques allow the elements of character, author, and narrator to combine in ways that are otherwise impossible to execute. The novella “City of Glass” presents its characters using postmodern techniques. These techniques allow the content to go beyond the traditional roles of author, narrator, and character. Changing author, narrator, and character from definite roles to mutable qualities enables a more complex exploration of the theme of identity. It can allow readers to question the characters and the logic of the literary universe. While the postmodern techniques may not create the most conventional novella, they do create a novella that can be debated even over twenty-nine years after it was first published.

Works Cited

Auster, Paul. “City of Glass”. 1985. The New York Trilogy. New York, NY, U.S.A: Penguin, 1990. 1-158. Print.

Auster, Paul. “About the Authour”. 1985. The New York Trilogy. New York, NY, U.S.A: Penguin, 1990. N. Pag. Print.


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    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      10 months ago from USA

      Although I wouldn’t want to read too many books with these techniques it would be fascinating to read this one!


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