September 19, 2008

Paul Auster, City of Glass

I've just finished reading City of Glass, one of many suggestions I've received for expanding the reading list for my upcoming 'Mystery and Detective Fiction' course.

Unprofessional reaction: I hated this book. It's too clever by half, full of cute intertextual, metatextual jokes and tricks, and all too predictably and preeningly post-modern about the elusiveness of meaning, the fracturing of identity, and the gaps between signifieds and signifiers. It's fiction as word- and mind- games, all metaphysics and no humanity.*

Professional reaction: This book is utterly unlike the other novels on my syllabus, and yet deliberately and intricately engaged with them and what they represent and investigate (I realized that all by myself, even before I read through this smart critical essay). You could say that it offers a philosophical and theoretical as well as literary response to the rest of the syllabus. In its own way, it takes the metaphysical premises and literary conventions of detective fiction more seriously than any of the other assigned works--and, again in its own, postmodern, self-conscious way, does more with them (or should I say, to them?). Pedagogically, I can certainly see the case for teaching it, and I'm sure I and my students would learn from the experience.

So here's where I'm left for now: I hate the novel, I'd be happy never to read it again, it's everything I don't like about postmodern fiction (and theory)...but it just might be the right book for my course, and assuming I can learn to engage with the novel intellectually, my visceral dislike of it will either be rendered irrelevant or even subside. Maybe.

* Update: This review of Auster's recent Man in the Dark over at the TLS tells me mine is not a wholly idiosyncratic response to Auster: "for the first time, perhaps, in an Auster novel the heart is more important than the head."


NigelBeale said...

Interesting how your two takes also reflect heart and head...

Sounds to me like you should include the book on the reading list Rohan.

btw I much prefer your unprofessional reaction...use the book to illustrate why humanity is essential to 'greatness'

Joel Rodgers said...

Oddly enough, I read this novel at random over the summer, and I had the same "unprofessional" reaction. Auster's narration is so... smugly postmodern, and the writing isn't terribly great. I might even call it bland (although I did like the part about the awkwardness of bathroom interruptions).

At the same time, I agree. It would be an intellectually-engaging book alongside real works of detective fiction. Certainly, Sayers and Auster make incredible contrasts.

Unknown said...

Will your professional side overpower your non-professional side? I'm always worried that students will pick up on the fact that I positively loathe the reading material, because (speaking from experience) that inadvertently encourages them to disengage from the text.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Good points and questions, all. I'm still torn! Miriam, I take your point. I do often teach things I'm not a big fan of (Hardy!) but I find trying to get into something enough to teach it makes me, for the short term at least, enthusiastic about it (if, for people who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like, then for the duration, I try to be a person who likes that sort of thing, if that makes sense!). On the other hand, if they happen across this blog post, my cover will be blown, won't it?!