Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Art of Pretentiousness

Every once in a while, a book comes along and changes everything. A book that forces you to look at the world in a new way and to question everything you felt you knew. It’s a book that can define a generation, and change the course of history. Paul Auster’s City of Glass is such a book. It dares you to ask “Who am I?” and “What the hell am I doing reading this?” Truly, this book represents the very epitome of Literary Art. No other book has affected me as much as City of Glass this year. This masterpiece, this tour de force par excellence, has forced me to look over my previous blog posts and wonder what I was thinking. The word “pretentious” does not mean what I thought it meant. And so I would like to begin by apologising to Raymond Chandler for using the adjective to describe his work.

Paul Auster’s City of Glass is Book 1 of “The New York Trilogy”, and it was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. I’m glad to see that the Edgar committee has some sense. Finally, R E A L   L i t e r a t u r e  is nominated in the category. And believe you me, literature can’t get more real than this. See, the entire story revolves around Daniel Quinn, a fellow who – get this –  writes detective stories! Jolly good jumping jelly beans, what a delightful reference to the genre! Anyhow, one night, he gets a telephone call, asking not for Daniel Quinn but for… wait for it… Paul Auster! Say what? Yes, indeed, the author himself is asked for at the telephone. Or is he? For Auster appears as a character as well as being credited as the author, but it is Quinn who is the protagonist, and yet a third person altogether who writes the whole thing!!! Isn’t this whole thing delightful? So very metaphysical, in an almost Miltonian sense, though it never quite approaches the fluid poetry of Keats.

Saint Paul
Oh, you want to know the plot? Please. Paul Auster has no time for such silly things as that! You see, the genius of this book is that this is a detective story about being unable to resolve a detective story!!! You see, the protagonist is hired to protect a mentally retarded fellow, a poorly written character who we’re supposed to feel sorry for because of his traumatic background. Instead, the character tramps around on the streets, and eventually (for no reason at all) casts himself out of his own home, shitting in a dumpster and shunning humanity, waiting for his money to dwindle down into nothingness. Oh, the heartrendering drama!!! Neither the reader nor Quinn ever know what he’s supposed to solve in the first place, but what does that matter in the hands of a literary genius like Auster?

Ah, and indeed Auster is a very literary genius. He’s sure to let the reader know. The entire book constitutes a series of lectures on various subjects that have no relevance to anything, but which are literaryOOOOOooooooohohohohoho God, they are liiiiiiiiiiiterary!!! Yes! Oh yes, yes, yes!


We are lectured on the symbolism of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the prophecy of Humpty Dumpty, the significance of taking a shit, the importance of words, and above all rhyming. It doesn’t matter that when you pick up a detective story you’re expecting detection – this is a perfect opportunity to comment on anything but the detective story, and thus get you to question your fundamental expectations when approaching a detective story!!! Isn’t that just genius???

It’s a shame that this book is not quite perfect, though. At one point, Paul Auster has a lecture on Don Quixote which reads rather like a mystery would. A very short, tongue-in-cheek sort of mystery, that is, in which he questions the authorship of the book, and which might give readers the wrong idea about what kind of book they’re reading. This is not supposed to be merely amusingTHISISLITERATURE!!! If only Auster had cut this portion entirely out of the book, and maybe had published it separately if he wanted to, readers could read this masterpiece without worrying about the possibility of being entertained!

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the metaphors, the pointless asides that constitute the very essence of L i t e r a t u r e. I think there’s something very appropriate about one of the opening scenes being about Quinn taking a shit. And of course, the author shows nothing but respect for the genre of the detective story that he so deliciously subverts:

What interested him about the [detective] stories he wrote was not their relation to the world but their relation to other stories. Even before he became William Wilson, Quinn had been a devoted reader of mystery novels. He knew that most of them were poorly written, that most could not stand up to even the vaguest sort of examination, but still, it was the form that appealed to him (…)

It truly puzzles me why I had never heard of this book until now. Surely its cultural impact must still be great! For Auster makes such stunningly original observations. For instance, it’s very true what he says near the end of this novel: if you live on the streets long enough you’ll start looking like a bum! My… God! I’ve read the passage several times and still I can’t help but feel amazed. It’s all been so simple all along! We must let the people know! The world must know of this stunning insight into reality!!!

And so, my friends, rise up, and go on your merry way knowing that Paul Auster, like a knight in slightly shit-stained armour, is here to defend the tradition of true Great American L i t e r a t u r e. Be sure to spread the Gospel According to Postmodernism, and let the world know of the genius that is this masterpiece, City of Glass. This is such a great book that I simply cannot allow myself to continue with the other two parts, for fear of ruining this story's pristine brilliance.

18 comments:

  1. Usually I curse you for adding to Mount TBR. Thanks for removing at least three books from that ever rising summit.

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    1. Happy to be of service, Ron. It's all in a day's work, and this review was rather fun to write (and illustrate!).

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  2. For once I agree with you about what constitutes pretentious writing. I loathe these books. Ridiculously overrated by the literati and journalists. Their worst crime - they are often just plain boring. I read only two of the three and never went back to Auster again. Thank God, for one thing - they were very short. That's all I remember about them.

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    1. Yes, John, my thoughts precisely. On the GAD facebook group, where I provided a play-by-play, I remarked that if the book had gone on for just 50 more pages I'd have suffered a mental breakdown.

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  3. This ironic rant deserves a video lecture. At least, readers should be directed to your taped assessment of Baxt in order to heighten enjoyment of this post by imagining it articulated, in grand and fevered fashion.

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    1. I actually considered giving this rant a film treatment. But my British accent would offend UK readers, especially when I E-Nun-Ci-Ate. And when it comes to faking orgasms... well, let's just say I'm no Meg Ryan.

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  4. Having read the trilogy years ago, I grinned my way through your review, Patrick. I don't remember the novels well enough to comment on any of their specifics, but I do recall finding them interesting, although definitely not as detective stories. That was then, of course, and I might very well respond differently to them now were I to reread them. I might respond just as you have.

    I just pulled my copy of the book off the shelf. You might be amused (sourly, I'm sure) by the review blurbs on the front and back covers:--

    "A wonderfully imaginative novel of suspense and psychological analysis...Nothing less than a marvel."--San Francisco Examiner

    "A wondrous whodunnit for metaphysicians, an intricate detective story and many-layered romance."--Russell Banks

    "Remarkable...the book is a pleasure to read, full of suspense and action. One can only wait with much anticipation for the second installment of this strange and powerful adventure in [Paul Auster's] art."--Toby Olson, The New York Times Book Review

    Full of suspense and action? What book were these guys reading? The one thing I recall is that it contained neither quality.

    Anyway, Patrick, thanks for giving me a good chuckle today.

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    1. Barry, I'm glad I at least gave you a laugh. Of the entire book, the best part was the bit on the "true" authorship of Don Quixote, and I'll give Auster that much -- that bit genuinely entertained me. Everything else was a major, major chore to get through. And I saw those blurbs in my copy too. I still have no idea what drugs the reviewers were on.

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    2. Ok i didn't expect to do this but im going to defend Paul Auster; with the new york trilogy i understood that auster was writing a postmodernist narrative in the language of stereotypical hard boiled private eye writing, and it was never to be taken as proper detective fiction; i am astounded that
      it was nominated for a detective fiction award, which makes me think that the judges missed the point; this would be like making joyce porter spokesperson for the met police. i have to say that as a piece of postmodernism i enjoyed it but never equated it with crime fiction;
      by the way i recently finished cat of many tails and cannot thank you enough for a) pointing me in EQs direction and b) reccommending that particular title.
      Thanks as always, and sorry if the opening para sounded grumpy

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    3. David, no worries. I can take criticism and I always welcome some form of discussion. I hated this book, but I set out to entertain people with this review. Like you, I am very surprised that the Edgar committee nominated this book for an award. But hey, the people at the Academy Awards nominated Robert Downey Jr. for his role in TROPIC THUNDER... where he played an actor who was shamelessly trying to grab an Oscar. People can be incredibly dense sometimes.

      I approached it with a completely different set of expectations. This is because I was supposed to read it for a *Detective Fiction* course, and of course this was nothing *like* detective fiction, and also did rather a bad job of being an homage or whatever it was supposed to be. After all, it insults the genre right in its pages!

      Also, I have no patience for postmodernism whatsoever, and my patience ran out looong before the book came to a close. This is a purely personal preference.

      If you are a fan of postmodernism, or are expecting a piece of speculative fiction and are open to the idea, you might enjoy this book. I'm not a fan, and my expectation was for a very different type of story.

      I'm glad that you liked CAT OF MANY TAILS, and I hope you enjoy Ellery Queen! Be sure to check out THE GREEK COFFIN MYSTERY -- it's one of EQ's trickiest cases, undoubtedly one of the most complex battle of wits in all of detective fiction!

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  5. I don't know who decided that the "literary" mystery had to be unsolvable, but that person deserves to have his own writings read to him for the rest of his life. I can't stand the contempt the L I T E R A R Y types hold for the classic mysteries.

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    1. I have no idea whatsoever, Christopher. But I do know that William DeAndrea hit the nail on the head in that block of text I use on the bottom of my site:

      "Mysteries range from light comedy to Grand Guignol, with every gradation in between, including that of (ahem) literary art. It happens rarely, to be sure, but it happens just as rarely in those rarefied circles of writing whose practitioners are shooting for art and nothing else. And in the mystery, the misses are still fun to read."

      This was a most definite miss, and I wouldn't qualify it as a mystery.

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  6. Well, I was going to suggest Patrick that maybe you should stay away from post-modern fiction (especially when guying hardboiled detective stories) but, disturbing references to pooh aside, I did enjoy your review very much. I liked the books a lot at the time (though one has to say, post-modern fiction has come a long way in the last quarter of a century) and generally like Auster's books anyway (doing a post on ORACLE NIGHT shortly in fact, 'ceteris paribus'). If you haven't done so, you just, just, might enjoy reading the earlier works by Auster collected in HAND TO MOUTH which include several works that form the basis for the trilogy as well as a pretty traditional thriller, SQUEEZE PLAY, originally published under his 'Paul Benjamin' pseudonym. Or maybe not ...

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    1. Sergio, if it was left up to me alone, I would never have started, let alone finished, this novel. But my grade was potentially on the line, since I might have to write an essay on the book, depending on what I go with. I might just end up doing so, because I know Julian Symons wrote something not-entirely unsympathetic with my opinion in the 3rd edition of BLOODY MURDER, which should arrive for me at the library in good time.

      Honestly, I just don't *get* postmodernism. It seems to be an entire literary movement without substance or definition, and it seems to think that can be applied to everything. As a scientist, I can assure you that's impossible. So the central premise of the whole thing is compromised, and we're left with a literary movement that does nothing to satisfy or even entertain me.

      And honestly, being bored is probably the worst crime of all.

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    2. I have got that edition of the Symons (there's a surprise) so let me know if you want anything looking up - I think I know the bit you mean (also when he talks about Borges, right?).

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    3. I actually don't know -- I've only read through the second edition of the book. This is just what I've heard. Either way, I will soon have my own copy of the book and then will know for certain.

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  7. Patrick, just in case i be accidentally tagged as a postmodernist fan, let me explain myself. I 'get' (understand wny they are doing it) postmodernist fiction; I don't 'get' (understand its popularity) postmodernist fiction; i sympathise with you if you have had to study it; i remember as a student having to criticise gertrude stein's 'tender buttons', a piece made up of random words because she was trying to write poetry as an artist would use colours for a picture. on the one hand i thought ' i can see the point you were trying to make'; on the other i thought 'you got royalties for that????'
    Oh and be sure of it if the Greek Coffin Mystery turns up in any of the charity shops round my neck of the woods i'm getting it. I have the finishing touch and third side of triangle on my tbr pile. At the moment the only one left on display i havent purchased is 'and on the eighth day'. Anyone know if thats worth a try for three quid?

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    1. David, no worries. I don't understand post-modernism myself... well, let me rephrase that. I recently had a chat with my professor in which we discovered that I totally understood what this book was trying to accomplish, but I rejected it based on that. I still don't know how exactly you can define postmodernism but I take comfort in the idea that postmodernists themselves probably don't know either -- I think (though I'm not sure) that's one of the central themes of the whole thing.

      Regarding Ellery Queen-- I've heard mixed reviews of AND ON THE EIGHTH DAY. It's one of those books you seem to either love or hate.

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