„City of Glass“ is a story about a lonely man named Quinn, who is a writer of detective stories. In the middle of the night he receives a strange phone call and someone on the other end asks him for help in a criminal case. The person who called believes that Quinn is a detective named Paul Auster and wants to meet him. After the third call, Quinn decides to take Auster‘s identity and goes to the meeting as a man he isn‘t. And so he gets involved into a case that can‘t be more confusing and puzzling.
The book starts with a description of Quinn. He is thirty-five years old and had once a wife and a son, who are both dead now. Quinn is a writer of mystery novels, which he publishes under the name „William Wilson“, because he doesn‘t want to be recognized. His favorite activity is walking through the streets of New York, where he lives. He sometimes takes strolls for hours, without any target or a specific direction. The description of these walk make you (as very often in Auster‘s books) want to have so much freedom that you can decide that you walk now for hours through this astonishing city.
After that short introduction of Quinn, the book starts right off with this particular phone call. In fact, the first phone call means almost nothing, because Quinn tells the caller that he isn‘t Auster and hangs up. But the alarmed strange voice on the other end makes him curious, The voice talked about „a case of utmost urgency“ and that „time is running out“. The second call comes in when he is on toilet. He lets the telephone ring and ring and when he finally gets to answer it, the called had already hung up. Quinn gets really interested now and starts to look forward to the third call. He wait for days, but one evening, when he didn‘t expect the person to call again, the telephone rings and he arranges an encounter.
The style Auster describes all that is typical. Short, but precise paragraphs, with an exact description of what is going on, but without any additional information about how the person feels and thinks alter with completely reasonable characterizations of Quinn, that try to explain his personality with flashbacks to the past, explanations why Quinn likes or dislikes particular things and examples how Quinn acts in certain situations.
You soon get a quite sharp picture of Quinn, he is an eccentric, lonely man, who has lost his wife and son and finds it hard now to find pleasure. All the things he likes, he does alone, like reading history books or taking walks through the city. Writing detective novels is the only thing he can do for a living, and it is almost the only thing he actually does. He seems like a quite intelligent man who lives a life that is just regulated by himself. He decides when to get out of bed and start to work, he decides when he can stand up from work and take a walk and he decides when it‘s time to stop working and go to bed again, and nobody and nothing tells him to follow certain times.
The next day he goes to the address given to him to meet the person who called. A beautiful woman opens the door and leads him to her husband, Peter Stillman. He was the one who called Quinn at night. Peter is a young man with white-blond hair, who moves as if this activity needs all his attention. He starts to speak to Quinn and it sounds as if he had to learn every sentence by heart. Something about his talk makes him appear like an authistic person. He tells Quinn that he shouldn‘t ask questions, because it‘s hard to answer for him and then he begins to tell his story, for hours, without a pause.
Peter was the victim of a terrible crime. His father locked him into a dark room after his birth and never spoke a word to him or let him out. He wanted to find out if the child wouldn‘t hear any language, if it would begin to talk the pure, pristine language of God, that was lost now. After nine years he was found. In his mind he was still a baby, he didn‘t learn a thing. He couldn‘t walk, couldn‘t eat and naturally couldn‘t talk. After years of therapy and living in the hospital, he is now able to talk with all his concentration, but with no understanding for the words he says. He learned his whole behavior much too late and he can‘t express himself like a healthy person, even though he is fully aware of his condition. Peter knows he has been the victim of something that can‘t be made undone and he knows that his brain doesn‘t work the way it should.
After Peter held his speech, Virginia Stillman tells Quinn the reason of his visit: Peter‘s father is about to be released from prison and Quinn should follow him from the train station home and watch him everyday, so he can‘t come back for Peter. Quinn, who is a shy person, begins to act like the main character in his novels, Max Work, a famous detective who is full of charm and cleverness. Bit by bit he get obsessed with the idea to solve the case and protect Peter and becomes the detective the Stillmans want him to be…
By the way it is described, you can predict early that Quinn will get in to deep into the case. Firstly, he has fallen in love with Virginia and wants to impress her and secondly he gets excited about the thought to be more than just a write of mystery novels. He wants to be part of them. As time goes on, Quinn gets deeper and deeper into the roles of Max Work and Paul Auster.
Quinn starts to work on the case immediately and visits the library to find out more about the history of cases like this. The father of Peter, Mr. Stillman, has even written a book about the „lost language“. Quinn studies many other histories about children that have been kept away from language to learn the „true“ language of God. In the bible, the history of Babel is, according to Stillman, the history of the fall of language. After that fall, words and the thing they described weren‘t interchangeable anymore and names became detached from things. He wanted to find out if his son would give the things again their appropriate names and so he committed this unbelievable crime.
The next day he waits for Stillman‘s train at Grand Central. His plan is to follow Stillman to his new residence and watch him everyday. To find out what Stillman looks like, Virginia gave Quinn a picture of him. But when the people got off from Stillman‘s train, he sees two people that look both exactly like the man on the picture. Quinn has to take a hard decision and follows the one that looked more like a bum than a former professor.
Quinn starts to constantly observe Stillman. Every morning he waits for the old man to come out of his hotel and follows him on his walks through the streets of New York. Because he is completely free with his working time, Quinn spends the whole day to shade Stillman. What the former professor does on his walks remains a secret to Quinn. He just walks around the city with no particular direction, his eyes constantly on the pavement and from time to time stopping and picking something up.
For weeks, he keeps following the old man. Again Auster turns this dull activity of the old man into an interesting process inside Quinn‘s brain. Full of doubt and constantly asking himself if all this had a sense, but with a strange satisfaction and a comfort to be Paul Auster now, Quinn walks behind the man, not knowing whether Stillman is aware of his presence. Always keeping in mind that he is doing all this for Virginia, he looks forward to their meetings to give her his report and maybe flirt a little bit.
After weeks without any results, he starts to draw Stillman‘s routes into his notebook and comes to a strange cognition: The movings of the old man add up the letters of the word „The tower of Babel“.
The next day he decides to talk to Stillman. He sits beside him and they start a random conversation between strangers. Stillman begins to tell him about the meanings of words and that they have been lost. They begin to have these philosophical discussion regularly, every time on a park bench and every time with Quinn having introduced himself as somebody else. The conversations are strange, you always feel that Stillman knows that Quinn is following him, but he always acts as if he had never seen Quinn before. Before their last conversation, Quinn introduced himself as Peter Stillman. Stillman treats him like his son in the following discussion and tells him more about the importance of language and that he is glad to see his son talking again.
Since the case had begun, the descriptions of Quinn‘s feelings and thoughts got rare. It is as if his mind is detached from his body now and that he acts like a completely different person with another soul. The story is told with a lot of chronological listings of what Quinn does and sometimes long conversations with Virginia or Stillman. What is remarkable about these conversations is that there are often no breaks between the lines said that describe the way somebody said something or how somebody reacts on something the other one said. You have to decide yourself how the persons feel, act and react while they talk and because of the missing descriptions, you sometimes have the feeling that the persons just talk out of boredom or courtesy.
The next day after the conversation, Stillman is gone. Quinn asks in the hotel, but he had checked out. When he tells Virginia about it, she is totally scared and wants Quinn to protect Peter. Quinn is desperate too and to get an advice from a real detective, he visits Paul Auster. But Auster is no detective, he is just a writer. Quinn tells him the whole story, but Auster isn‘t angry that his name has been used. He invites Quinn in his flat and they talk a little about literature, but Auster can‘t do anything for him.
Quinn is totally finished. He knows nothing, he has nothing and he can‘t find Stillman to protect Peter from him. He is also unable to call Virginia, the number is always busy. So Quinn settles in opposite the house of the Stillmans and waits for Peter‘s father to come. He tries to eat and sleep the least possible to keep a constant eye on the house. For months he lives on the street opposite to the house and keeps waiting for Stillman. When his money runs out, he leaves his spot for the first time and tries to cash his checks from Virginia, but it doesn‘t work. He decides to go back to his apartment, but there is a young woman living in it and all his stuff is gone. With an incredible emptiness he returns to the house of the Stillmans and goes to the apartment. It‘s empty. Naked, dirty and with nothing to eat he lies on the floor there and sleeps. He wakes up and suddenly there is food standing besides him. He eats a little, writes something in his notebook and sleeps again. It goes on like this for many days, weeks or months, but nobody knows…
„The City of Glass“ is a typical book of Auster. Dark, strange and full of unexpected turns that make the story so special. It‘s about a man, who lives a life without a target, without any goals. Suddenly he gets the chance to change his identity, to change his whole life. He gets a mission, a way to break out of his misery and puts all his efforts in the case, no matter how senseless his activities might be. After the man he follows disappeared he still can‘t let go of the idea that he has to bring it to an end and drives himself into madness. He is obsessed with the thought to find Stillman, but he has lost his original object.
I think the story wants to say that we can‘t change our identity, that we‘ll always stay who we are and that a sudden turnabout is impossible. It‘s also about obsession, about the fact that when you want something so desperately, that you give your whole life up for it, you will never succeed, because you have nothing to come back to anymore, even when you have reached your target. The book is remarkable because in the beginning you expect a simple detective story with an interesting case, but you‘ll realize that it is a story about a man who gives himself up and loses everything because of his unfertile obsession.