Postmodernism features in City of Glass by Auster

Postmodernism as a literary style emerged in America in the early 1960s. In its simplest description, postmodernism is a theory that implies after modernity. The definition of modernity excites many debates and controversies that are Postmodernism features in City of Glass by Austernot the focus of this paper. However, an introductory description of the theory as it applies to literature and the world in general will help the reader understand the discourse taken by this paper. Notably, the evaluation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass novel masterpiece will aid the reader to understand what postmodernism entails in the literature world. Paul’sCity of Glass novel has featured in many postmodernism reviews as the epitome of the style that symbolized the arrival of a new era in literary writing.

Development of Postmodernism

Postmodernism can be described as a movement away from the modernist view of the world. Contemporarily, the theory of postmodernism concerns itself with the conflicts inherent in objective truth and the accompanying suspicion toward meta-narrative. Believers in postmodernism tend to believe that possibly all realities are only social constructs that change according to place and time. Therefore, the human reason is considered the best approach to deciphering the truths about the physical and social conditions of the world. Consequently, postmodernism holds certain tenets ideal. These tenets include the role of language, motivation, and power relations. Imperatively, several approaches have been developed to be employed by fans of the postmodernism theory. First, language and textual content are considered the fundamental phenomena of existence. Secondly, majority of the worldly phenomena ought to be subjected to literary analysis. Third, reality and representation should be repeatedly questioned lest they become fallacies. Fourth, a critique of metanarratives is mandatory. Fifth, method and evaluations should be subject to argumentative discourse. Sixth, power and hegemony should undergo a strict analysis. Lastly, the Western institutions and knowledge should be routinely critiqued. Coincidentally, literature purporting to espouse postmodernism characteristically critique sharp societal classifications that include dichotomies such as white against black, male against female, and gay versus straight among others. These literary works emphasize that the apparent realities are plural and relative to the individual perceiving them. Notably, the interests of the individual will determine the reality that will manifest in their perception. Michael Foucault, a French philosopher, is considered one of the few modern philosophers that advocated the perpetuation of postmodernism in the society. His famous works included critiques of the contemporary world. According to Michael Foucault, the everyday engagement of people defines their identities and their systemization of knowledge. Therefore, human history is but many layers of subjective and the unconscious knowledge that people have opted to accept. Beneath the layers are assumptions and codes of order that create structures that exclude and legitimize episteme in the society. Consequently, the socially accepted “realities” that the society accepted as the absolute truth were control mechanisms to regulate social hierarchies and structures. Foucault’s arguments asserted that social practice, rationality, and “biopower” are inseparable and determine each other. One of his most monumental argument that was incorporated into the language styles used in the postmodernism movement in literature was that language is oppressive. In other words, Michael Foucault claims the use of language can be perverted to maintain the status quo. A typical example can include the use of language to render false or silent tendencies that might undermine the social hierarchies and structures. Interestingly, these social hierarchies and structures can pretend to be championing liberation, freedom, or valuing minority groups but their true intentions are provided a smoke screen by crafty use of language.

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            Thoughts such as those of Michael Foucault led writers fond of postmodernism to develop distinct writing styles that employ several literary devices. These literary devices include metafiction, pastiche, multiple identities, and the detective form of narration. All the literary devices mentioned tackle the conflicts regarding truth and identities. In particular, language as a tool that humanity uses to understand the world is questioned by these styles.

Metafiction is a literary device that authors use to create the “self-conscious fiction.” Here, the characters and the narrative in the literature are full of several layers of reality and identity. The characters in a narrative often try to define their identity because the previous identities have been doubted. Therefore, the characters appropriate different identities as they attempt to find the truth about themselves.

Another prominent feature evident in the postmodernism literature is pastiche. This literary device allows authors to produce works of writing that are full of parts of the works of other authors or imitations of the style of other authors. For example, Paul Auster’s City of Glass resembles a detective fiction in the initial stages yet a reader progressing further into the novel discovers that it is an anti-detective novel. In this case, the appearance of the novel as a “detective fiction” is because postmodernism has allowed Paul Auster to copy the styles of other authors who are experts in detective fictions. The concept of anti-detective fiction gets a suitable explanation from Ryan Bishop (2002). Ryan asserts that anti-detective fiction style questions reality by leading the reader to presume that the literature one is reading is a classical detective narrative that eventually concludes with an exposition of the truth. However, the reader realizes later in the course of reading many chapters of the literature that the exposition of the truth will remain a dream or fantasy. An analysis of the conceptualization, and development of detective fiction reveals a particular formula that has become familiar to the readers of these kinds of fictions. According to Lyotard (1984), the fixed formula of the detective fictions serves to bestow a level of legitimacy to particular societal institutions like the police and law enforcement agencies. A prominent style evident in detective fictions is the linear sequence and logical notion of narrative progression that guides the readers toward an anticipated end. Therefore, the narrative has to be meaningful to the reader if interest in the fiction is to be sustained.

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On the contrary, the anti-detective fiction approach of the postmodernism literature subjects the reader into a critical analysis of the protagonist’s activities in the narrative. Rather than believing the dominant character of the protagonist that is evident in the text and is related to the detective work, the author’s use of different identities altersthe reader’s perception of the protagonist. Every time the protagonist changes identity the reader acquires a different perception of the character and the events unfolding in the narrative. Elusiveness and complexity are the hallmarks of anti-detective fiction as the seemingly straight-forward protagonist on the path to uncovering universal truths becomes deceptive and mysteriously possess double identities. Anti-detective fiction always appears to want to prove one thing – reality is more complex than fiction. Unlike fiction where truths are imagined and held onto for the peace of mind of a person, reality is full of chaos, circumstances, and problems that cannot be solved. Because postmodernism holds the view that truths are relative to a person’s beliefs, circumstances, and personality, the authors of anti-detective fiction avoid falling into the same trap that they criticize. Therefore, instead of providing the readers with a solution, the authors provide nothing by introducing the chaos and confusion that is inherent in the real world. Therefore, the readers are leftalone to challenge their worldview according to the changing identities of the protagonists and the characters in the narrative. Consequently, it is the  reader’s discretion to decide which identity of the characters in the narratives will be accepted as the truth. Conclusively, the goal of postmodernism in employing metafiction and pistachio is to upset the societal truths. Although these concepts might seem novel to a reader unfamiliar with how postmodernism authors apply them, an examination of Paul Auster’ City of Glass will provide adequate and appropriate examples.

How the City of Glass represents postmodernism literature

Paul Auster’s first novel happens to be the City of Glass that was first published in the year 1985. The novel was received with many criticisms that lauded the novel’s exceptional use of the concept of postmodernism to refine the literary world. Subsequently, the novel has been translated intoseventeen different languages in addition to being number one choice in teaching postmodernism in schools all over the world. Paul Auster’s The New Trilogy is the author’s compilation of three novels that are considered the best. The New Trilogy includes the City of Glass as the introductory novel. The uniqueness of theCity of Glass is evident in the novel’s complex use of the cityscape to subtly provoke the reader to perform the deciphering of the city’s objects that function as linguistic codes. This novel has all the characteristics of postmodernism with all the literary devices like the pastiche, intertextuality, parody, irony, temporal distortions, and language playfulness being evident in different chapters of the novel.

First, the titleCity of Glass echoes the prevalent themes of identity crises that will recur throughout the novel. The novel’s narrative is in the context of New York city, where glass-filled skyscrapers dominate the skyline. The line “a labyrinth of endless steps” refers to the highly storied buildings that make up the city. Symbolically, the presence of glass everywhere in the city will create islands of open spaces people would use in their movements. However, people moving between these glasses will start experiencing the reflections and counter reflections of their images. These counter reflections would continue to infinity because of the presence of a many glasses. Accompanying these reflections would be the attempts of people to identify themselves using images that naturally emerge on the glasses. However, these people would lack a definitive identity as the glass reflections and counter-reflections create multiple images that have unique attributes in terms of size, shape, and orientation among others. These multiple images symbolize the many identities that people in the city have. Therefore, the multiple images of a single person represent the different identities that a person can assume in the city. Another interpretation is that the multiple images reflected on the glass skyscrapers of the glass city represent the way the characters in the city reflect each other’s characters. The important concepts arising from the symbolism of glasses is that many people in the city have challenges in defining their identities. In addition, the many reflections signify the lack of focus in the novel. As you shall realize, the novel emphasizes on the differences inherent in the society instead of the agreement to certain biases or perceptions.

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            Secondly, the explicit use of the metafictional narrative literary style is introduced early to the reader by the character Daniel Quinn. This character, an avid fan of detective fiction, uses a pseudonymous writer name of William Wilson. The character’s solitudeis demonstrated by the “aimless walks that characterize his modest living in a small New York apartment…………since his wife and son are deceased.” Already, the author introduces the metafiction by letting the protagonist identify the circumstances surrounding his life. The reader forms a prejudgement of the protagonist as someone who is need of excitement as evidenced by the aimless walks that he does as long as his legs can allow. Quinn’s broken and condition of despair is attributed to the deaths of his wife and son.Although the author avoids an explicit mention of the reasons Quinn seems bored with life, the reader gets a hint that the abrupt deaths of his loved ones must have dislocated any idea of certainty or universal truths that make sense to Quinn.Quinn’s desire for excitement is rewarded when someone wrongly dials Quinn’s number with the expectation that is it one Mr. Auster, a private detective. Quinn’s assumes the identity of Mr. Auster and is instructed by Peter Stillman to follow his father, also Peter Stillman, who is mentally ill. Peter Stillman suspects that his mentally ill father is on a mission to kill him. There is a revelationin the narrative that explains the reasons why Peter Stillman is wary of his father. Apparently, the father of Peter Stillman had locked him in a dark room during childhood in the attempts to make his son speak God’s language. Although Quinn, now Auster, accepts the assignment and starts following the father of Peter Stillman, his curiosity fades because he realizes that the wanderings he is doing in following his subject are worthless. Notably, the novel has already foreshadowed its anti-detective nature. Typically, detectives are mandated to follow the subjects of their assignments relentlessly until a breakthrough in their investigation is achieved. However, Quinn has already defied this tradition by abandoning the trail of a suspect and turning his attention to the person who assigned him the task. Evidently, the investigative life of Quinn, the impersonator detective, becomes the focus of the narrative instead of the life of the father of Peter Stillman. Accepting the role of an investigator robs Quinn his personal life because his life is now dictated by the aimless wandering of the suspect. Although Quinn has rented an apartment, he appropriates the lifestyle of Peter Stillman Senior in his attempts to finding out the truth about the suspect. Consequently, Quinn loses his identity and motivation to live because his mind is focused on the life of Peter Stillman Snr. Fortunately, Quinn realizes that following his subject to know the truth is a futile exercise. This revelation is another foreshadow of the anti-detective nature of the novel. Another important concept introduced at this point is the author’s revelation of the anti-detective theme that the novel will assume. For instance, conventional detective narratives often contain a crime, the victim, the culprit, the detective, and the detection process. In this case, the crime is Peter Stillman’s past transgression against his now matured son. The victim is Peter Stillman Jnr; the culprit is Peter Stillman senior while the detective is Auster/Quinn. However, Quinn’s resignation from the detective process defies the logic of an investigative narrative as the focus now shifts from the culprit to the detective. Apparently, Quinn’s experience in investigating the culprit made him realize that his life needs investigation in regards to the identity of his life. Peter Stillman’s mysterious death provokes Quinn to resume the search for the definition of his identity. Curiously, Quinn adopts the role of Stillman by obsessively trying to find meaning of life through language. Stillman, on the other hand, mysteriouslydisappears while on a quest to discover the roots of language in the hopes that the discovery of the language will save the world. Stillman represents the ultimate modernist because he believes the role of language in saving humanity as the ultimate truth. However, his futile attempts lead to a suspected suicide. Meanwhile, Quinn’s assumption of Stillman’s language project similarly drives him crazy. There is a moment in the novel when Quinn is being towed away in a garbage can as he is looking up at the cloud, “………..trying to learn their way…seeing if he could not predict what would happen to them” (140).

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            The concept of metafiction and multiple identities in the novel becomes evident when a reader tries to chart the relationship that exists between the novel’s narrator, Daniel Quinn, Paul Auster, and the novel’s author. Here, there is a character named Paul Auster who supposedly is the novel’s author. However, Daniel Quinn is impersonating a detective by the name Paul Auster. On the other hand, the real Paul Auster character in the novel being sought by Peter Stillman Jnr. is a detective who has abandoned his detective work and has embraced fictional writing. Quinn’s propensity to assume identity of others is driven by the desires to realize his modernist impulses. However, the appropriation of the identity of others can only happen if Quinn uses a postmodern fragmented approach. Quinn’s oscillation between Paul Auster, own self, and two fictitious characters asserts the postmodernism theory that affirms the unitary self as illusionary. Quinn’s queer character symbolizes the author’s acknowledgement that the  postmodern society is full of people who have doubts about their existence. There is an explicit confusion on the part of the reader in deconstructing the relations that exist among the novel’s main characters. Therefore, the plot line being employed by the author adequately introduces the concept of chaos as intended by the postmodernism style. Even the narration of the novel is confusing as the narrator is introduced in the first person but soon changes into a third person only after a few chapters into the novel. There are only two other instances where the narrator reappears as a first-person. The confusion that is apparent in the style of narration adds to the novel’s emphasis on confusion rather than a linear or logical structure. Auster’s insertion of self into the novel as a character is an attempt by the author to explore his inner self by means of writing.

Ambiguities in the novel are evident in many instnaces in the novel. In fact, refocusing attention on the first scene where the pretentious Detective Quinn is supposedly acting in a “detective” manner demonstrates a very ironical scene. At the train station, Quinn encounters the two Peter Stillman’s and is in a dilemma on whom to select as his culprit. Instead of deductively figuring out whom to follow as the suspect in accordance with the practices of detectives, Paul/Quinn arbitrarily selects the option to follow the beggar as the culprit and dismisses the corporate cladStillman. Therefore, the author proves that the truth in the world according to people is dependent on the lens through which a person decides to perceive the world. In this case, Quinn decided that Peter Stillman the beggar is the culprit and not the other corporate-clad Stillman. The message passed is that people often think that their decisions are rational yet they are subtly dictated by the biases and discriminations that are inherent in their world-influenced views. The concept of ambiguity is built upon by the novel to introduce the subtle irrationality that most characters in the novel demonstrate yet they think that they are behaving rationally. For instance, Quinn’s investigative follow-ups of Peter Stillman mistakenly assumes that the detective process entails following a subject and jotting down all the details that the subject does. This line of reasoning is influenced by the common perceptions that people have about the detective profession. Another instance where ambiguity is evident is when Quinn’s finally disappears from the novel while in Stillman’s house where he had been writing some notes on the red notebook (156).

Criticism against the City of Gold as a Postmodernism literary work

Despite apparent evidence of several literary devices of postmodernism, there are several critics that allege Paul Auster’s City of Glass is not wholly representative of the postmodernism theory. In fact, the whole concept of postmodernism theory being valid is doubted by critics. According to Fredrick Jameson (1991), postmodernism is the culture of late capitalism that spans across multiple nations. The only difference between postmodernism and modernism lies in the fact that the latter is a cultural derivative of monopolistic capitalism. Therefore, Jameson postulates that postmodernismtheory if it exists in the first place, should be understood in the context of examining the present and comparing it with the past. Jameson’s assertions recognize that history is vital to understanding the present phenomenon unlike the predominant postmodernism theories that negate the role of history in understanding the present. According to the postmodernism theory, the accuracy of history is in doubt because the framers of history were vulnerable to the same weaknesses of subjectiveness evident in the characters of the City of Glasses. Assuming that Jameson’s assertions are valid and therefore adopted, history then becomes the guardian angel that helps the people in contemporary society to find the real meaning of their present circumstances. The relevance of history for understanding the present is because understanding the changes that have occurred in the past that led to the present gives us a better understanding of the where we are, where we are going, and where we ought to go. Man has repeatedly demonstrated that he can appropriate history to form his culture by ignoring long-term historical trends. Therefore, the culture that is the result of a biased process cannot help an individual decipher and connect the present with the past of the future. The shortfalls in history are the reasons postmodernists rarely depend on master narratives to understand the present.

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            Jameson comes up with a novel idea that postmodernism is but an improvement on the modernism view of the world. According to Jameson, postmodernism, unlike modernism, assumes that the signs of reality exist on their own. In fact, the signs of reality are detached from the external reality. Therefore, the postmodernism cultural artifacts such as literature have reality signs that are randomly available. This notion it the reason Paul Auster’s characters such as Quinn embark on random journeys to find the truths about their identities and the essence of life. However, the random nature of the postmodernism signs makes them unsuitable for explaining anything outside of themselves. Coincidentally, most of the authors in the postmodernism bandwagon demonstrate a certain level of chaos and disorders in the themes of their works, which is a reflection of the nature of the signs in the postmodernism theory. A suitable example of Jameson’s allegations is found in the narrative of theCity of Glasses. Here, the novel’s author, Paul Auster, is the only sign that attempts to identify something. Nevertheless, the author’s attempts at attaching meaning to something only helps to define himself and nothing more. Jameson is categorical that postmodernism itself represents a temporal change or replacement of another theory. On the other hand,using Lyotard’s evaluations (1984) supports the validity of theCity of Glass as a postmodern literary work because it qualifies the condition of postmodernism that does not require the writer to be judgemental. In fact, a writer adopting the postmodernism approach does not need to be governed by any pre-established rules or expected to apply familiar categories to the text or to the work. Paul Auster demonstrates all these postmodernism concepts in the paper when he makes the novel’s protagonist disappear from the novel’s plot line. Unlike Jameson’s assertion that finding meaning of the present is dependent on the past events, the characters in the City of Glass rarely depend on the past to try to define their current identities. Although all of them supposedly fail to identify their current identities, they fulfil the author’s strategy of defying the norms prevalent in detective fictions. Rather than directing the readers to a conclusion as per the norms in detective fiction, Paul Auster uses anti-detective fiction narration to direct the reader towards the path of finding the truth. Finding the truth, however, is not the ultimate goal of postmodernism. As evidenced by the novel, finding the truth can be costly especially when an individual has embraced modernist views and perceptions. In this case, the individuals like Quinn and Peter Stillman Snr persist in finding out the truth about their identities using different approaches. Whereas Quinn uses a postmodernism approach of identity-shifting, Peter Stillman Snr uses the modernist approach. Inevitably, the modernist approach becomes suicidal to Peter Stillman because he insists on history to reinforce the deeply ingrained beliefs he has about the world. Quinn’s approach is not successful than Stillman’s approach, but it enables him to realize the how the definition of his identity is a difficult task.

Using City of Glass as a guideline in contemporary literature provides a useful lesson.The definition of contemporary literature should be based on the present and the future. Paul Auster’s City of Glass is acclaimed for its originality in incorporating untested postmodernism theories. The bold move by Paul Auster opened new avenues in literature that experimented on new forms of narrative writing. Although Paul uses concepts such as Pastiche to borrow from writers that belonged to the modernism era, his employment of metafiction creates a new style that recognizes the necessity to exclude judgmental conclusions out of novels. Therefore, the readers have the discretion to decide what the novel is all about. Unlike the modernist novels that are predictable in their outcomes, postmodernism novels like City of Glassare intellectually arousing because they keep the reader mentally participative in the development of the novel’s storyline. Contemporary literature should copy this style especially in an era like now when relativism is a predominant factor in influencing public judgment and perceptions. In other words, novels that rely on modernist theories of pre-established rules or the application of familiar categories in texts are no longer much of a concern. The issue at hand in the culture of relativism is how the novel will creatively address current and emergent issues.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry (1982): 777-795. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1984. Paperback.

Malmgren, Carl D. Detecting/writing the Real: Paul Auster’s City of Glass. London: City U, 2004.

Ryan, Bishop. “Postmodernism.” Levinson, David and Melvin Ember . Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2002. Paperback.

 

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