City of Glass in Manchester

HOME Manchester, Lyric Hammersmith and 59 Productions are staging an adaptation of Paul Auster’s novella, City of Glass.

City of Glass is the first of 3 metaphysical or postmodern detective stories collected in The New York Trilogy, which is Auster’s best known novel and the one attracting the most attention from scholars.

The production coincides with Auster’s new novel, 4 3 2 1, and his visit to the UK to promote it – he’s been on Radio 4 and Newsnight in recent weeks, and read from his novel at, among other venues, HOME.

The metaphysical detective story employs the conventions of the traditional detective mystery – a crime, clues, investigation, a detective, a suspect, a femme fatale – but along the way the detective finds himself contemplating complex and foundational philosophical ideas. In City of Glass, the detective figure finds himself investigating language, identity, writing, narrative and literary form. I use the term detective figure here because Daniel Quinn is a detective writer who takes a case meant for the Paul Auster Detective Agency.

HOME’s adaptation is stunning in how it realises the claustrophobia of Auster’s metafictional central character, isolated from New York society by tragedy and his writing, and whose world atrophies to two rooms; his tiny apartment and a room in the Park Avenue apartment of his client. Through, visual wizadry, we are transported between these physical spaces, but also to Biblical accounts of the creation and fall of language (Eden and Babel), to the founding of the American Republic, and even to the incomprehensible wonders of the cosmos which lie beyond the capacities of language.

This trickery overcomes some of the interiority of the narrative. The reader knows Quinn’s narratives from the entries he makes in a red notebook (a common motif in Auster’s fiction) in which he records the Stillman case. Quinn, then, is a purely textual figure, illustrated when he writes, towards the end of his narrative, ‘what will happen when there are no more pages in the red notebook?’ The answer, of course, is that Quinn will disappear. The notebook is passed on by a number of characters within the story, including a writer called Paul Auster (the 4th if you include the author whose name is on the cover of your book and Quinn who is pretending to be the detective Auster) – before being interpreted, like a series of clues, by a first person narrator who intervenes towards the end of the story.

The way this adaptation negotiates these readerly concerns is to have the disembodied voice of the narrator inform the audience of what is going on. As a consequence, much of the burden of interpretation – between the text, the action and the audience – is borne by this device. Given that you are effectively having the book read to you, it is the stunning visuals which add the most to the audience’s experience. Having said that, the play does offer a great night out and a well-told story in a wonderful venue.

And it was nice to see my own book on Auster’s work for sale by the till in the shop. I wonder if they sold any!

Click here for a review, and here for the trailer.

City of Glass continues at the Lyric