City of Glass

Strangely enough, Auster’s City of Glass was quite possibly my favourite novel this entire year. It was weird, confusing, at times disturbing – but surprisingly relatable. Quinn, a writer without any goals, wandering aimlessly, finding himself everywhere yet nowhere. He finds himself in reality, yet at the same time, does not see himself as real.

Despite the narration being in third person, and the aloofness of the character, I found that in the novel, Quinn was still a sympathetic and somewhat understandable character (for most of the book). On the other hand, I found myself much more detached from the story, and much more distant from the Quinn that was being portrayed. Yet perhaps that is what makes this book so fascinating to me – the variety of interpretations the story can have, and the characters that are so strange that their personalities are almost shifting and malleable. I do not see either graphic novels or conventional literature to be a “superior form” – rather, in this blog post, I will try and explain how these mediums shaped my own interpretation so differently.

New York City – From the roof (2007). In the public domain. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

“My name is Peter Stillman. Perhaps you have heard of me, but more than likely not. No matter. That is not my real name. My real name I cannot remember. Excuse me. Not that it makes a difference. That is to say, anymore.” (Auster 27)

Perhaps the most drastic change of perspective I had when I moved on to the graphic novel was the depictions of the characters, especially that of Peter Stillman (Jr.). While in the novel form, Peter was undoubtedly a strange and mentally troubled figure, it was when he was drawn in the graphic novel that I truly felt the sense of being disturbed. From page 15 – 23 in the graphic novel, Peter’s “speech” is depicted, yet in a much different fashion from the novel. Each page is drawn in a symmetrical 9-panel layout, at first depicting Peter, staring, unmoving. After the first page the scene shifts to numerous objects and figures, sharing the same theme, with each speech bubble apparently being sourced from an inanimate object. Instead of having just Peter’s broken speech, and leaving the imagery to the reader’s imagination, the graphic novel uses this symbolism to perhaps portray Peter as one of these broken, unmoving objects, comparing him to these strange things which should not have a voice.

On the subject of 9-panel layouts, a realization dawned upon me as I looked upon page 37 of the graphic novel: the symmetry and geometric layout of each of the panels, and formation of the panels to create a larger scene, gives the perfect impression of a window. Here, we stare into Quinn’s home, these private quarters, where he is vulnerably naked and holding his head in frustration. Although the panels can still be read from left to right, and the papers in each panel are aligned in that order, it appears to be a larger scene, and the shape of the page completely resembles a window frame. Up until this page, I had been wondering about the precise geometric shapes, and the odd panel layout of the graphic novel, but it was not until this page that it hit me – each page is a window into Quinn’s life, another surface in the “City of Glass”. Although we may seem to be told all the details of the story, the novel is merely a frame, a glimpse of the bigger picture that we cannot understand. At the same time, Quinn’s character becomes increasingly more alienated from both us and the real world: the transparent layer of glass forces us to stay on the outside of the story, unable to connect to his mind, and unable to understand the book’s strange mystery. It is almost as though we are no longer readers – we are merely viewers, confronted with our own isolation.

And after all this time, I still feel as though I have merely scratched the surface of the book…City of Glass was an intriguing novel indeed.

One thought on “City of Glass

  1. I agree with you–this is one of my favourite books all year! Or rather, both of these books are, in both versions.

    I hadn’t thought about the panels with Peter Stillman Jr.’s speech in the way you had suggested here, that the reader is invited to think of him as one of the inanimate objects. But that makes a lot of sense; the words come out of his mouth, but then also out of the mouths of the objects. Many of them make little sense to me. All I could make sense of was that we are somehow going further and further down, or inside, of his mouth and the mouths of several other things, and into various deep places like wells (but what’s up with the pile of excrement?!). And then we end up at the bottom of a pit with the words coming out of the marionette’s mouth (a marionette that Peter is). It makes sense to me to say that we are invited to think of Peter as these other objects that are not supposed to have a voice.

    And I am very intrigued by your interpretation of the 9 panel grid as a window. I had thought of it being like a window (and a jail cell door, p. 22), but I hadn’t gone much further than that. It’s true that we are still, all the way through, stuck viewing from the outside and not quite getting it. Though at the same time, I wonder if Quinn “gets it” himself!

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