Deconstructive Binaries and Dissident Reading "City of Glass" by Paul Auster

Essay, 2014
9 Pages



The aim of the present paper is to unveil how a “dissident” reading can be perceived by a deconstructive investigation in the novel City of Glass by Paul Auster. As the matter of fact, the story entails some binaries which their clashes serve to conceptualize the term “dissidence” as observed in the approach of cultural materialism. Cultural materialists argue that literature does not reflect only one cultural formation and is able to invoke other ideologies and subcultures. To put in other words, while a literary work may serve to practice the dominant ideology, it may produce a contrary dissident reading. This possibility mostly is based on the inner contradictions of any literary text. This is the common ground of cultural materialists and post-structuralist deconstructionists although there are many differences between the two sides such as the former opposes the latter, arguing that texts are not created in the void. In fact, the inner contradictions, which the theories and principles of cultural materialism is rested on, can be realized as those dualities which the deconstructionists apply in their practices. They imply that no transcendental meaning is present in the verbal game of a work of literature as the cultural materialists deny one dominant culture. In City of Glass Paul Auster has skillfully exhibited such a verbal game to represent his own concerns regarding the subject of the identity caught in the binaries of “author-reader,” “fact-fiction,” “solitude-loneliness” and “city-space,” leading to a “dissident” reading which is potentially opposed and threatening to those social oppressive norms which the protagonist “Quinn” is suffered.

Key Words: Paul Auster, City of Glass, cultural materialism, dissidence, binaries, identity.

I. Introduction

Brenda Martin writes in his Paul Auster’s Postmodernity “Auster’s postmodern worldview encompasses an overwhelming lack of cognitive certainty, foundational indeterminacy, ontological skepticism, and the open play of story. Auster suggests that the world he inhabits is largely inexplicable. Indeed for Auster, the contingent occurrence is a constant and intrusive presence in human existence” (103). City of Glass (1985) by Paul Auster is included within The New York Trilogy in addition to Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1987). As Martin maintains “City of Glass is a pastiche of the detective genre,” depicting many of the classic attributes of postmodern fiction. (1) The novel is a detective story, but not a typical one. In fact, it conveys, to some extent, the sense of humor in this regard. The difference between the novel and a typical detective story lies in the inability of the detective to discover the solution of the crime. Not only the detective fails in finding a solution, but is he engaged with seeking his own identity. The novel’s protagonist Daniel Quinn is a writer with the literary pseudonym William Wilson whose intention to write is to forget his grief, caused by the death of his wife and his son. One evening, the phone rings and a person who wants to talk to a private detective called Paul Auster. Quinn tries to tell him that he has made a mistake but that person never accepts. Then, after some other calls, Quinn, disguised by the identity of Paul Auster, agrees to meet that person whose name is Peter Stillman. Then the story steps to a detective one because Peter Stillman wants Quinn both to protect him from his father and to find him. Quinn goes to a library and commences his task by studying a book written by the father of Peter Stillman, who published it some years ago. Then he goes to Grand Central Station, waiting for professor Stillman to arrive. The only thing he has is a picture of Stillman the father taken twenty years ago.

Quinn thinks that he has found the most likely subject and pursues him for about two weeks. It appears that the man is a harmless out-of-mind, and Quinn decides to stop his work, but Virginia Stillman refuses. She insists that he continues for a bit more. Speaking to the man, Quinn accepts but is no longer happy with his job. The result of the conversation is making him sure that professor Stillman is out-of-mind, but he cannot be sure that he can have danger for Peter. Prior to be certain about the professor, he loses him. Then, the story steps to its final phase when Quinn is determined to find the original detective, Paul Auster, whom Peter Stillman was seeking for. He approaches to a man with the same name but with a different job. Interestingly, that man is very similar to him in the sense that he has no real experience as a detective but what he writes in his fiction. Quinn seeks to reach the truth. In his quest, he achieves nothing but the sense of uncertainty about an enigmatic play with the identity and labyrinthine ideas concerning his own self.

The present paper aims to exhibit how the clashes of binary concepts in City of Glass by Paul Auster create the potential of dissidence.

II. Methodology

Too broadly speaking, “Cultural materialism” denies the dominance of any single culture which is always threatened by the other cultures and ideologies surrounding it. “Cultural materialism,” as a British approach in literary theory, is highly associated with its American counterpart “new historicism.” This proximity is to the extent that one can rarely find a book in literary theory without having the two approaches next together, or even within an identical chapter. However, regardless of any mutual history, “cultural materialism” is influenced by the theories of Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Luis Althusser, and thinkers of the “Frankfurt School” although in some anthologies there are some other names and persons like Mathew Arnold, F. R. Leavis, and Claude Levi-Strauss. But the early stage of “cultural materialism” emerged in Britain by Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, the leftist British thinkers in 1960s. The theorists that are representing “cultural Materialism” today may include Alan Sinfield, Jonathan Dollimore, Catherine Belsey, and Stuart Hall. However, John Brannigan in New Historicism and Cultural Materialism asserts that the term “materialism” refers to the point where culture is produced, or reproduced by technological, practical, and ideological agendas (95). He adds, “Cultural materialists are committed to interpretations and investigations which have overt political ends in the contemporary world … cultural materialism takes the form of investigation of the material circumstances in which conservative ideologies function and are perpetuated” (98-9).

Firstly, literature acts as a discourse with the potential of discursive formation, dealing with the issues of power relation. But what does “cultural materialism” exactly say as a literary approach? Hans Bertens in his book Literary Theory: The Basics in the chapter which talks about Cultural Materialism announces, “Literature does not simply reflect relations of power, but actively participates in the consolidation and/or construction of discourses and ideologies, just as it functions as an instrument in the construction of identities not only in the individual level – that of the subject – but also on the level of the group or even that of the national state” (177). The theorists of cultural materialism argue that literature participates in constitution of culture. Raymond Williams once declared that literature is not an autonomous phenomenon. Literature and art are accounted as social practices (Brannigan 1998, 95) Cultural materialists established a new phase of political and ideological conflict in which Sinfield and Dollimore in political Shakespeare observed that literature and literary criticism are not neutral (Ibid 97).

Secondly, Bertens agrees that literary texts are willing to represent how the seemingly socio-cultural order is threatened by the inner contradictions and tensions that they seek to hide (186). As the matter of fact, there is no genuine or transcendental truth to be achieved within the literary text. Those inner contradictions will enable the text to have the potential of dissidence. In other words, binary clashes act as inner contradictions, demonstrating that how a literary text is able to produce dissidence in the literary work. “Dissidence is not so much a matter of individual agency but is first of all produced by the inner contradictions that characterize any social order (Ibid). Brannigan maintains that, “In some cases cultural materialism achieves its political ends by interpreting literary texts from the stand point of oppositional or dissident subcultures” (99). He remarks, “Dissidence is not opposed diametrically to power, not an antithesis which seeks to reverse the values, trends, and strategies of power. It is instead close in resemblance to the structures of power and is in fact produced by the internal contradictions of these structures” (111).

Thirdly, cultural materialism pervades the marginalized of the society and reveals the process of forming marginalization and exclusion. According to Brannigan, Dollimore rebelled against a type of essentialism he calls a “residual metaphysics in secular thoughts” whose task was supporting the dominant culture, leading to the exclusion of others, “The essentialism promoted within humanist literary criticism, then, tends to reinforce the exclusion of alternative social and political identities, and to police the ideological constructs necessary to maintain the division between the sociopolitical norms and the margins” (101).

III. Discussion

Jean-Francois Lyotard declares that postmodernism means to collapse the “grand narratives.” . Brenda martin quotes from Gitlin that “postmodern fiction . . . self-consciously splices genres, attitudes, styles. It relishes the blurring or juxtaposition of forms (fiction- non-fiction), stances (straight-ironic), moods (violent-comic), cultural levels (high-low)” … As realistic conventions have been superseded by an emphasis on undecidability, all ontological certainties are eroded” (6). Paul Auster’s City of Glass portrays a “postmodern condition” within which there is no clear-cut border between the binaries “author-reader,” “fact-fiction,” “solitude-loneliness,” and “city-space.” One may speculate that the story is in favor of each side of the binaries, but the undeniable fact is that the novel disseminates both sides of them, depending the reading which is applied to the text.

First of all, we seek the challenges of “author-reader” relationship in the work of Paul Auster. As Brenda Martin remarks, “authority is rejected in favor of the intrusion of the unpredictable” (5). She argues,

Comparable to Auster’s later writings, his triptych investigates the status of the author, the plight of the individual, and the relationships between fathers and sons. In each novel, a writer immerses himself in the remit of a self-obsessed quest to locate his enigmatic alter ego. These covert surveillance activities prove misguided however, and in the end, the protagonist of each novel suffers as a consequence of his interaction with his adversarial duplicate (103).

She asserts that there is an “ironic relationship between character and author; an ambiguous narrative voice; the blurring of fact and fiction as the novel’s protagonist Daniel Quinn is a writer with the literary pseudonym William Wilson” (1). As the matter of fact, Paul Auster has made a contradictory relationship between the concepts of the reader and the author. To put in other words, “author-reader” relationship is continuously reversed. On the one hand, Quinn, a detective author, is involved with the case of Peter Stillman. On the other, he is attached to two persons; the first is Max Work, the detective of his stories, and the second is Paul Auster whom Peter Stillman was searching for at the beginning of the novel. Quinn is both in the position of the author of City of Glass, and is read by two Paul Austers, the real author of City of Glass, and that of the fiction whom seems to be one with the real Auster. Consequently, the meanings of both concepts, author and reader, is decentered, and provides the necessary ground for the diisident reading in cultural materialism. The dissident interpretation regards the collapse of the authoritative institutions as a grand narrative; and the position of the author is compromised.


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Deconstructive Binaries and Dissident Reading "City of Glass" by Paul Auster
University of Tehran
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deconstructive, binaries, dissident, reading, city, glass, paul, auster
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Amir Hossein Yasini Visti (Author), 2014, Deconstructive Binaries and Dissident Reading "City of Glass" by Paul Auster, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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