Convergence of Meaning: The Tripartite Nature of ‘I’ in Paul Auster’s City of Glass
Private eye. The term held a triple meaning for Quinn. Not only was it the letter “I,” standing for “investigator”, it was “I” in the upper case, the tiny life bud buried in the body of the breathing self. At the same time, it was also the physical eye of the writer, the eye of the man who looks out from himself into the world and demands that the world reveal itself to him. (Auster 15-16)
Paul Auster’s City of Glass is a text that confronts a wide array of themes, two of the most prominent being language and identity. Language is presented as the conveyor of meaning, connected to the Biblical myth of Babel, whereas meaning is an evasive concept that is tied to the genesis of language, but ultimately distanced from it by the same connection. In the above passage, where Auster’s dubious protagonist Quinn defines his understanding of ‘private eye’, language and identity are shown to be tied inexorably together. Through this association, the three implications of ‘private eye’ form the facets of Quinn’s identity, with the overpowering search for meaning uniting and eventually deconstructing his investigative persona and his core identity.
The double nature of the uppercase ‘I’ is critical to Quinn, whose identity is in flux between the two definitions of detective and writer for most of the novel. He has very little sense of self, shown in the way the novel introduces his character traits, such as a fondness for baseball and opera, the small facts that he smokes and is reading Marco Polo’s Travels. In addition to these more trivial elements of characterization, it is also explained that he once had a wife and child, both of whom are dead. This highly traumatic event plays strongly into his mindset, yet is simply listed alongside his other doings, a summary more than an explanation of character (7-11). Of Quinn’s personal traits, his identity as a writer is the only one actively invoked throughout the entire narrative.
Quinn is largely distant from his work, or at least the process of writing. His main venture is churning out mystery novels under the name of William Wilson, which feature a character named Max Work. Wilson is a pseudonym and nothing more, in that Quinn deliberately has no involvement with the name beyond using it to decorate the covers of his books (10). Little is said about Work, although it is implied that he is a straightforward hardboiled detective, in the vein of Sam Spade. Unlike Wilson, who remains “an abstract figure”, Work is a character with whom the lonely Quinn can identify, leading him to describe the interrelation of the three as a “triad of selves” (11).
The book begins with Quinn being mistaken for Paul Auster, identified by the caller, Virginia Stillman, as a detective. Quinn adopts this identity, reaffirming the duality of ‘I’ in the concept of ‘private eye’ by shifting from his pre-existing self as a writer and stepping into the new role of investigator. In assuming Auster’s identity, a fourth is added to the total scheme, making two detectives (Work, Auster) and two writers (Quinn, Wilson). Both Quinn and Wilson are identified as writers first and foremost, and are insubstantial in the sense of ‘I’ as identity. Wilson is completely abstract, essentially a name with no capacity for action, while Quinn is a human being whose life is presented as a soulless list of actions. By contrast, the detective characters identified with the investigative ‘I’ are given depth, panache and bravado as part of this mantle, especially in contrast to the writers. Quinn feels “out of place in his own skin”, while Work is “aggressive, quick-tongued, and at home in whatever spot he [happens] to find himself” (16). The passive, insubstantial writers “[look out] into the world”, while the detectives “demand it [reveal itself] to [them]”. Max Work allows Quinn to live out his detective fantasies and assume the ‘I’ of investigator in fiction, but by assuming the identity of the detective Paul Auster, he can make the same attempt in reality.
This becomes more understandable if the idea of Auster, like Work, originates as more of a character to Quinn than a persona—a writer’s idea of a detective. Quinn repeatedly identifies himself as a writer, and as such casts his identity as a manipulator of stories and characters, a creator of the identities that exist within his work. His stories are hardboiled detective fiction, a genre with very clear aesthetics and tropes. Femme fatales, sardonically streetwise dialogue, interconnecting capers and edgy investigators working sensational cases all form part of the expectations of the fiction, moulded from story pulps and film noir. These are obviously escapist conceits, as the figure of the private investigator is also a figure of male fantasy, a resourceful, independent figure capable of masterfully deconstructing complex situations. Quinn, with his own detective façade, can become this ‘private eye’ and all that entails. The status of ‘private eye’ is to the concept of self as the concept of the detective is to the writer—the former produced by the latter for vicarious gain, in abstraction and reality respectively.
In this sense, the ‘I’ as investigator should serve to protect the ‘I’ of Quinn’s original identity, but Quinn does not use it that way, nor does he use Auster’s name to indulge in any feats of the detective-hero bravado expected in a hardboiled story. The unanticipated kiss from Virgina Stillman is entirely initiated by her, and he is not able to make any further advances towards her—in the typical detective story formula, she is set up as the love interest or femme fatale, but this expectation never materializes over the course of Quinn’s investigation.
With expectations of sexuality dismissed, Quinn also opts out of classic expectations of violence, or at least confrontation. Given the chance to confront Peter Stillman Sr., he queries rather than interrogates him—critically, he knows Stillman contextually as a psychotic domestic abuser, and so the expectation of some kind of retribution in kind would be present in a standard detective story. Despite this, there is no intimation of threat (from either side) and no antagonism from Quinn despite his awareness of the horrifying things Stillman has done. There is no climax or stake to the interrogation, to the extent that Quinn doesn’t seem to acknowledge Stillman’s capacity as a threat. At this place in a conventional narrative, the events are expected to be some degree of climactic in its antagonism, and the mood emphasizes this so as to allow the reader vicarious release at the intimidation of a child abuser. In Quinn’s narrative as Auster, the events are bizarre and the mood is at best meandering and uncertain. He recognizes the actions associated with the fictional investigator, but never employs it himself in the moment, even when the narrative expectations he follows demand those actions.
Despite this denial of the agency present within his detective façade, Quinn’s confrontations with Stillman are exemplary of his commitment to living through the character of Paul Auster. In these confrontations, he gives the name Quinn to Stillman; he feels it is Auster’s name that he must protect, even though the advantage of having this pseudonym is to guard his own identity (117). This is a sign that the ‘I’ of investigator is converging with the ‘I’ of the self, and that Auster the detective is not just a character created by Quinn the writer but another identity he lives through. While Quinn assumes of Max Work through writing, he assumes the identity of Paul Auster through impersonation, becoming the character he imagines rather than simply identifying with it. Eventually, when he meets the ‘real’ Auster, this dynamic begins to break down, and Quinn’s mind begins to unravel.
Auster and Quinn are nearly identical on a superficial level, in that both men are writers (and define themselves as such), smoke, and are fascinated by Don Quixote. Beyond these commonalities, however, their identities diverge: Auster has a son and wife and remains a writer who is engaged with his work and his life, whereas Quinn has lost his family in an undescribed tragedy; Auster has enthusiasm for his work while Quinn has utterly lost his ambition. These similarities cause Quinn’s memories of tragedy and defeat to surface, and he feels as though “Auster were taunting him with the things he lost” (157). Auster is a reflection of Quinn without the loss of identity that drives him to assume a detective mantle in the first place, and which eventually burgeons to a loss of sanity—all the while, Auster continues to go about his life.
After leaving Auster, Quinn deals with the remembrance of his loss by escaping once again into the identity of the Auster he constructed—the detective over the author. Breaking away from his own identity as Daniel Quinn, the writer steps into the identity of investigator, despite realizing the foundations of his identity as Auster are facile. The next chapter, where Quinn’s escapist fugue causes his mind to unravel, begins with the statement that “Quinn was nowhere now”, showing the extent to which both of his conceptions of ‘I’ have been undermined (159). His efforts to look out in search of meaning have fallen out from beneath him, and it breaks him when he cannot form a conclusion to the mystery he feels these events should archetypically form.
In this regard, the third meaning of ‘I’, the homophonous correlation to an eye looking for patterns and meaning in the world, ties Quinn and his fabrication of Auster together. Quinn, as a novelist, writes mysteries where all information is significant in the way it is revealed to the reader, and where the mystery is inevitably given a solution that ties this information together in order to allow for a grand conclusion. The dynamic of the writer as one who “[looks out] at the world” and the detective who “demands it [reveal itself] to him” is complicated by the writer-as-detective combining these traits, applying the logic of a detective mystery to the actual investigation through this searching eye. This process of applying the laws of fiction to reality eventually works to dissolve the barrier between Quinn and his fabrication of Auster.
Quinn as Auster invests an intense attention to (often trivial) details in his investigation of Stillman—the older man’s walking patterns, transcribed in Quinn’s notebooks, become OWEROFBAB, and with the addition of a few assumed letters (four at the beginning for missed days, two for those yet to come), this becomes THETOWEROFBABEL (111). Quinn realizes, as he finishes the transcription, that he may only have “seen them because he wanted to see them”, demonstrating an awareness of how this obsessive search may be causing him to draw false conclusions. The fallible nature of the eye comes to fruition when less than a paragraph later he contemplates the fact that ‘El’, the last two letters, is ancient Hebrew for God. Ironically, the same logic that allows Quinn to derive higher meaning from coincidences drove Stillman Sr. to psychologically torture his son, leaving the boy detached from communication and possibly unable to construct meaning on his own right.
In dreams, Quinn correlates this search for meaning with sifting through garbage, a metaphor that renders an image of the obsession with meaning, and its deep-seated futility—the fact that he forgets this dream also causes him to lose the insight this could have brought to his situation, dooming him to his baseless investigation (113). His role as a private eye, in this sense, traps him in a threefold snare, where the ‘I’ of identity and the ‘I’ of investigator are both frameworks in which the eye of obsessive deduction operates. In the quest for meaning, the eye’s desire to collate information into a story, such as the writer’s plot or the detective’s investigation, supersedes the observation of reality.
As reality proves to become increasingly incompatible with the expectations entailed within the three dynamics, Quinn’s failed attempts to create meaning produce a pressure within him that culminates in his mental collapse. It is telling that, immediately after Quinn’s first musing on the triplicate definition of ‘private eye’, he is described as “living in the grip of this pun” for the past five years (16). Through this eye constantly observing and drawing conclusions with increasingly dubious logic, the collective thread of Quinn/Auster’s investigation collapses when Quinn discovers who Auster truly is, causing the entire fragile triumvirate of ‘I’ to break down. Quinn’s original identity—however weak—is subsumed into his Auster-as-detective identity, an escapist façade-cum-persona operating on the logic of the eye constantly searching for meaning and answers, but finding none.
Quinn defines both the detective and the writer as individuals looking for meaning, and in the end, looking on is all that he does, stationing himself as a watcher of the false Stillman residence and deteriorating into a weather-beaten vagrant. The facets of Quinn the writer and Auster the detective symbolized by the duality of the uppercase ‘I’ both fall to pieces as they strive to use the third ‘I’—the investigative and narrative eye—to solve a mystery that never existed. This triple-entendre has a hold on Quinn throughout City of Glass, and he eventually breaks in its grip.
Auster, Paul. City of Glass. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.