Paul Auster's 'City of Glass' as a postmodern detective novel

Seminar Paper 2006 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contens

1.0 Introduction

2.0 Introduction to postmodern detective fiction
2.1 The question of reality and identity within the postmodern period
2.2. Eriksson's model of identity formation
2.3 Mead's model of identity formation

3.0 Daniel Quinn: a multiple character
3.1 The quality of doublings within the novel
3.2 The narrator's role within the novel

4.0 Conclusion

5.0 Bibliography

1.0 Introduction

PAUL AUSTER`s novel 'City of Glass' published in 1985 appeared during the period of the postmodern era.1 Although it is considerably discussed at what time the beginnings of the postmodern era is to be set, it is irrefutable that ´City of Glass´ belongs to postmodern literature. To analyse in how far PAUL AUSTER`s ´City of Glass´ serves as a representative of the postmodern era and to show the reader in what way postmodern qualities are converted into the writings of that time, the main part of this paper will be divided up into two sections. The first section serves to define the coming up of this movement and the qualities it possesses within the genre of detective fiction. Furthermore some important idealistic features like the idea of reality and identity have to be taken into consideration. The short introduction of the two identity-constituting models by ERIKSON and MEAD will provide a better overview of the idea of identity formation. Within the second section the novel itself will be taken into consideration. Therefore it is necessary to take a close look at the main character Daniel Quinn and his character development the crisis of his identity in the course of the novel respectively. Besides another striking factor, namely the appearance of doublings and triplings of characters, has to be clarified as well as the role of the narrator. The conclusion at the end of the paper is supposed then to show to what extent ´City of Glass´ belongs to postmodern literature and which peculiarities of postmodern writings have been included in this novel.

Since there are just a few recent publications on Paul Auster and his novels three of them namely, An Art of Desire: Reading Paul Auster by BERND HERZOGENRATH, Crisis: The Works of Paul Auster by CARSTEN SPRINGER and the publication of ANNE M. HOLZAPFEL The New York Trilogy: Whodunit?: Tracking the Structure of Paul Auster's Anti-Detective Novels served as the basis for this paper.

Herzogenrath, Bernd. 1999. An Art of Desire: Reading Paul Auster. Amsterdam/Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, p.27. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Herzogenrath 1999, <page number>.

2.0 Introduction to postmodern detective fiction

The emerging of postmodernism is difficult to define.2 There are many different attempts to give a fixed period of postmodernism but an exact dating is impossible. Nevertheless it is clear that the rise of postmodernism was a kind of cultural turn or a cultural change within society.3 Within the scope of this paper only some of the attempts of dating will be given.

HELGA SCHIER assumes that postmodernism came up in the 1960s in the USA in the course of the publication of IRVING HOWE`s book The Decline of the New in 1963.4 CHRISTOPHER REED argues that postmodernism in art began in 1977 “with the publication of CHARLES JENCKS`s `The Language of Post-modern Architecture`”.5 Both authors believe that it is possible to give a fixed point in time for the appearance of this new movement which was turned against the ideals of the modern period.6 Hans Bertens offers a more permissive attempt while saying that postmodernism started in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He assumes that “the term was applied to the experimental art of the 1950s and 1960s and to the pop art movement of the mid 1960s”.7

According to HANS BERTENS postmodern fiction is concerned with the question of an ontological nature (the theory of being, of essence and the qualities of existence). So epistemology (the theory of realization) forms a great part of postmodern fiction. One may believe that this sounds paradoxical in connection to the postmodern belief that an absolute and certain truth is unattainable as described in paragraph 2.2, but the aim of this kind of writing is not to find the truth in the world but in a world. Therefore it has to be taken for granted that ontology permits the existence of a so-called `plurality of worlds`.8

At the same time it has to be realized that postmodern detective fiction does not want to serve for the ideal purpose to answer all questions concerned with the case as it appears in detective novels written by CONAN DOYLE or AGATHA CHRISTIE.

Postmodern detective fiction just wants to “dramatize the void” and confronts the reader with the “unintelligibility” and “indeterminacy” of the postmodern world.9 Taking this purpose of postmodern detective fiction into account, it becomes clear that we deal with anti-detective fiction.10 Specific qualities of this anti-detective fiction are that the reader is led by the author to the anticipation that he is reading classical detective fiction but that those expectations are left unfulfilled. Conventional elements of classical detective fiction like the detective, the crime, the culprit and the process of detection are used.11 Nevertheless the role of the detective has changed since he is no longer able to cause order. He has lost his function of an order-establishing centre since he himself and his inner life are not unified. Therefore his investigations cause investigations on his own existence and the quest for solving the case turns into a quest for identity.12 However, due to the fact that the solution offers no valid and certain truth and that every clue has lost its order-revealing function the reader experiences the story just like the detective as a kind of “labyrinth without exit”.13 Elements like doublings, especially doubled characters, mirror images or allusions to other writings support the impression of a chaotic world where really nothing seems to be ordered. As a consequence fiction seems to become more real than reality.14

Therefore it is maybe justified to claim that this kind of genre tries to offer the possibility of self-reflection to the readership while the reader tries to understand the motifs of the detective and connected to this the motifs of the author of the story as well.15

2.1 The Question of reality and identity within the postmodern period

The postmodern belief is that reality and representation overlap, because of the assumption that everything in our life, even language, is just a kind of representation. The postmodernists` arguments for this opinion are firstly the fact that our language is learned and internalized so that we experience it as real. A reality testing is impossible because language is a kind of normative standard in a speech community and can therefore never really be tested. Another argument is that in the course of the spreading of mass media everything in our life has become representation and that this representation “play[s] a significant role in creating human consciousness“.16

If one accepts this belief it is undisputable that nothing in life is real and that therefore a research for reality and connected to this a description of reality is impossible.17 “Instead of one single, stable and valid truth there are only truths in the plural.”18 Moreover absolute and certain truth is unattainable.19 This opinion has of course a great effect on the understanding of the structure of identities. If we assume that our human consciousness is created by a medium that only consists of representation we have to realize that our life and moreover our identities are ruled by indeterminacy.20 This can be compared to the process of learning a language. We are not able to prove the reality of our language. We have to accept it as a normative standard. If we began to question the reality and validity of our language, we had to notice that it is just a construction for communication. Therefore the validity is justified by the task it serves for. Returning to the importance of our identity we must assume that firstly the mass media offer not only one stable role-model but plenty of role-models. This abundance of role-models brings about the difficulty to decide on one specific model.21 Therefore it would be justified to claim that “identity has become as uncertain as everything else” since it depends on the way it is represented by our media.22 In addition to that we have to notice that a 'patchwork identity' can be a consequence.23

2.2 Erikson’s model of identity formation

ERIKSON`s model of identity formation is based on SIGMUND FREUD`s theory of identity including the id, ego and superego.

However, he believes that identity develops in stages while reaching its decisive stage in adolescence.24 There the young person has to manage the conflict between earlier identifications from childhood and the requirements of the society to an adolescent.25 Furthermore the adolecent has to subordinate within the hierarchically organized society while trying to find his special role within it.26 Due to the fact that the society offers a kind of intermediate period i.e. a postponement to the young person he is situated in a kind of “reconciliation” between his earlier `naive`identity and his new role within society.27 In the course of this intermediate period the young person runs through a normative identity crisis. Within this identity crisis he is situated in a conflict between the view of his self and the social norms. Therefore a so-called “struggle for ego synthesis” happens. The adolescent reflects on different alternatives offered to him. He has to think over his personal history and the reality testing. The latter includes his possible roles within society. After having reflected on those two perspectives the adolescent reaches a turning point in which the “constitution of a unified, socially accepted identity” takes place. ERIKSON calls this identity an “ego-identity”. This ego- identity normally takes care of the “continuity of self” throughout all social surroundings and the young person`s own experiences.

ERIKSON is of the opinion that if this “harmonization” is held up, there is left a long term ´identity-diffusion´. This identity formation is marked by the inability to make decisions, the tendency towards isolation and the confusion in the crowd. As will be shown in the analysis of the main character Daniel Quinn we will return to this brief description of ERIKSON`s model of identity formation later on.


1 Herzogenrath, Bernd. 1999. An Art of Desire: Reading Paul Auster. Amsterdam/Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, p.27. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Herzogenrath 1999, <page number>.

2 Bertens, Hans; Fokkema, Douwe, eds. 1997. Introduction to International Postmodernism: Theory And Literary Practice. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, p. 4. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Bertens/Fokkema 1997, <page number>.

3 Ibid., p. 4. cf. also Schier, Helga. 1993. Going Beyond: The Crisis of Identity and Identity Models in Contemporary American, English and German Fiction. Tübingen: Niemeyer, p.9. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Schier 1993, <page number>.

4 Schier 1993, p. 9.

5 Reed, Christopher. “Postmodernism and the Art of Identity.“ In: Stangos, Nikos, ed. ³1994 [¹1974]. Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism. Thames and Hudson, pp. 271-293, here p. 271. Quotes from this essay will from now on be referred to as: Reed ³1994, <page number>.

6 Bertens/Fokkema 1997, p. 5.

7 Ibid., p. 4.

8 Bertens/Fokkema 1997, p. 195.

9 Ibid., p. 197.

10 Ibid., p. 197. Holzapfel, Anne M. 1996. The New York Trilogy: Whodunit?: Tracking the Structure of Paul Auster`s Anti-Detective Novels. Frankfurt: Lang, p. 9. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Holzapfel 1996, <page number>.

11 Holzapfel 1996, p. 23.

12 Ibid., pp. 24, 31. cf. Sorapure, Madeleine. “The Detective and the Author: City of Glass.“ In: Barone, Dennis, ed. 1995. Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster. University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 77. Quotes from this essay will from now on be referred to as: Sorapure 1995, <page number>.

13 Holzapfel 1996, p. 24 f.

14 Ibid., p. 30.

15 Ibid., p. 25.

16 Reed ³1994, p. 272.

17 No author. 2005. Philosophy of Postmodernism: Definition, Postmodern Philosophers Quotes, End of Post Modernism. URL: http://www.spaceandmotion.com/Philosophy- Postmodernism-Post-Modernism.htm. January 30th, 2006. Quotes from this source will from now on be referred to as: Philosophy of Postmodernism 2005.

18 Springer, Carsten. 2001. Crisis: The Works of Paul Auster. Frankfurt am Main et al.: Lang, p. 15.

19 Philosophy of Postmodernism 2005.

20 Springer 2001, p. 14.

21 Ibid., p. 14.

22 Ibid., p. 15.

23 Ibid., p. 15.

24 Springer, p. 12.

25 Erikson, Erik H. 1970 [¹1968]. Jugend und Krise: Die Psychodynamik im sozialen Wandel. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, p. 159. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as: Erikson 1970, <page number>.

26 Erikson 1970, p. 160.

27 Ibid., p. 159.


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Title: Paul Auster's 'City of Glass' as a postmodern detective novel