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  • Work of the Detective, Work of the Writer: Paul Auster’s City of Glass
  • Jeffrey T. Nealon (bio)

Quinn was nowhere now. He had nothing, he knew nothing, he knew that he knew nothing. Not only had he been sent back to the beginning, he was now before the beginning, and so far before the beginning that it was worse than any end he could imagine.

—Paul Auster, City of Glass

The writer’s solitude, then, this condition that is his risk, arises from the fact that in the work he belongs to what is always before the work. Through him the work arrives, is the firmness of a beginning, but he himself belongs to a time dominated by the indecision of beginning again.

—Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature


The detective novel is often analyzed in terms of its metafictional and metaphysical appeal. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the genre comments upon the process of sifting through signs, and ultimately [End Page 91] upon the possibility of deriving order from the seeming chaos of conflicting clues and motives. The unravelling work of the detective within the story mirrors and assists the work of the reader, as both try to piece together the disparate signs that might eventually solve the mystery. The reader of the detective novel comes metafictionally to identify with the detective, as both the reader and the detective are bound up in the metaphysical or epistemological work of interpretation, the work of reading clues and writing a solution or end. 1

Within this strongly metafictional and metaphysical genre, perhaps no detective story foregrounds these aspects more than Paul Auster’s City of Glass, a detective story about a writer of detective stories and the first book of Auster’s The New York Trilogy. 2 Daniel Quinn, the protagonist of City of Glass, writes detective stories under the name William Wilson; 3 in turn, the detective-protagonist of the Wilson mysteries is named Max Work. Quinn is himself the perfect metafictional character; like most mystery writers, he has little or no actual experience of the crime-ridden underworld of the detective story: “What interested him about the stories he wrote was not their relation to the world but their relation to other stories” (8). Early in the book, Quinn muses on his own interest in reading and writing detective fiction:

In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so—which amounts to the same thing. . . . Since everything seen or said, even the slightest, most trivial thing, can bear a connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked. Everything becomes essence; the center of the book shifts with each event that propels it forward. The center, then, is everywhere, and no circumference can be drawn until the book has come to its end.

The detective is the one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them. In effect, the writer and the detective are interchangeable.


This quotation reflexively explains much of the detective story’s appeal: the work of the detective mirrors not only the work of reading (where [End Page 92] “each event . . . propels [the story] forward . . . and no circumference can be drawn until the book has come to its end”), but also—and more importantly for Quinn—the work of writing. The writer is the one who initially creates the disparate world of ruses and clues that is the mystery, but also the one who searches—more desperately than the reader—for its end, for “the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them.”

In fact, writing seems more closely tied to the work of the detective than reading, insofar as the writer and the detective embark on a journey that has no guaranteed destination. For the reader, the mystery always ends, regardless of whether it is solved. Even if the detective is thwarted or killed, the book eventually does come to a...