Paul Auster Essay

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“My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name”: The search for identity in Paul Auster’s City of Glass

Jakob Pearson ENG K01 Literary Seminar Autumn 2008 English Studies The Centre for Languages and Literature Lund University Supervisor: C. Wadsö-Lecaros


Table of Contents




Quinn embarks on a quest for identity


Quinn enters into an arbitrary world


Quinn takes an incomplete look at himself


Quinn plays the role


Quinn submits to chance


Quinn creates a second triad


Quinn meets his maker


Quinn falls in and out of denial


Quinn goes up in words




Works Cited

Jakob Pearson Introduction Paul Auster constructs an ambiguously defined cast of characters in his novel, City of Glass (1985). 1 Daniel Quinn, a writer of mystery novels, assumes the role of protagonist. Immediately his identity is thrown into doubt when Auster defines Quinn as a “triad of selves” (6). Living with the memories of a wife and son who are now dead, Quinn has become a man of solitude. His publications are ostensibly authored by the pseudonym William Wilson. Auster early sentences his leading man to madness, if only to a thus far limited degree, when asserting that Quinn “never went so far as to believe that he and William Wilson were the same man” (5). While Quinn himself is the instrument of actions or simply the “dummy”, Wilson is the “ventriloquist”, leaving Max Work, the macho detective in Quinn/Wilson’s stories, to complete the triad. His role is “to give purpose to the enterprise” (6). As Quinn yearns to remove himself from his past, he meanders through the endless streets of New York. He feels lost and disconnected. His goal is to escape his mind completely, to eradicate all thoughts and perhaps all memories, “to be nowhere” (4). However, these attempts at depersonalization are fleeting and Quinn, once given the chance, decides to enter into a story. He becomes Detective Paul Auster and assumes a character similar to his own fictional creation, Max Work. To hinder any possible misunderstanding concerning names and to whom they belong it is imperative to point out that Paul Auster has used his own name, maybe even characteristics of his own person, in the novel. That is to say that his name is not merely on the cover of the book crediting his authorship; it is in fact allotted to a couple of its characters. This distinction will be made clear throughout the paper although eventually such distinctions might seem unintended by the author himself. This conundrum will be at the core of my paper. I will discuss the various twists and features of the novel to assess, as accurately as one might in a mystery as inconclusive as this, the search for, lack of, or indeed need of an identity. In “An interview with Paul Auster” Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory manage to reveal the acclaimed author in a personal light. Auster answers their questions with diligence and care, uncovering, quite harshly, his own hazy sense of identity. Upon being asked if he is “interested in tracking down the sources of […] recurrent ideas and motifs” in his work that “have deeply personal resonances for” 1

City of Glass was first published in 1985 as an independent piece.


Jakob Pearson him, Auster replies simply, “[n]ot terribly”. He then alludes to the supposed fact that “novels emerge from [the] inaccessible parts of ourselves” and that his writing lessens the troubles caused by what he calls his “buried secrets” (7). City of Glass is highly relevant to this argument and the interviewers make sure to bring out every possible hint to the reality that lay behind the creation of the story’s fictional, if not semi-fictional, New York. 2 They imply that Quinn has a background similar to his inventor, especially concerning the lost wife and child, 3 and even suggest that the novel might be a “disguised autobiography” (McCaffery and...
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