The Detective in Search of the Lost Tongue of Adam: Paul Auster's City of Glass

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Author: Norma Rowen
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2000
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,939 words

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[(essay date Summer 1991) In the following essay, Rowen examines Auster's detective-like investigations into the role of language as a medium of representation and the nature of reality in the modern world as portrayed in City of Glass. "Throughout the book," Rowen notes, "we are continually reminded of the unknowable nature of this world."]

When the volumes of Paul Auster's New York trilogy began to appear, reactions were confused. Reviewers were interested and curious, even excited, but puzzled and rather wary. Rebecca Goldstein in the New York Times Book Review described Ghosts, the second work of the trilogy, as "a mystery novel-of-sorts," a kind of "metamystery" (13); and other reviewers noted the presence of such disturbing elements as complex interplays of doubles and a wilful confusion of fact and fiction that added more mystery to the basic mystery of the detective story form. Some bookstores, on the other hand, showed less readiness to speculate. They simply placed the book on the detective-fiction shelves.

In fact, all three works of the trilogy are examples of the genre now known as the metaphysical detective story, which has been shaped by a number of modern writers from Borges to Pynchon and Nabokov. Its defining characteristic is its transmutation of the traditional detective's quest into something more elusive and complex. In it, the relatively straightforward business of identifying a guilty person, bringing him or her to justice, and restoring social order is ineluctably subverted into a larger and more ambiguous affair. The identity in question becomes as often as not the detective's own, and justice and order dissolve into chimeras in a struggle with a reality that has become increasingly ungraspable. In this postmodernist version of the detective genre, rather than the final working out of the initial puzzle, we are left with what Stefano Tani in The Doomed Detective describes as "the decentering and chaotic admission of mystery, of non-solution" (40).

The parts of The New York Trilogy are set in such a universe of "chaos and non-solution," and the Auster detectives find themselves decoyed into a quest of a very different kind from the one they contracted for.

But Auster comes up with another and very original twist by adding a crucial language theme. Many who write about the detective story have pointed out that the detective is a kind of reader, a decoder of signs, of the clues that the scenario of the crime throws up. Peter Huhn in his article on this topic characterizes the similarities. "Continual rearrangement and reinterpretation of clues" he says, "is, of course, the basic method of reading and understanding unfamiliar texts" (455). Todorov in The Poetics of Prose is even more succinct. "Author:reader = criminal:detective" (49), he states, citing S. S. Van Dyne.1 In the postmodern world, however, things have become more complicated. Clues no longer point to anything certain; signifiers have drifted away from what they signify; and what Peter Huhn refers to as "a general lack of confidence in the efficacy...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100033439