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Postmodern Dilemmas 

in Auster's City of Glass, Delilo's White Noise

Postmodern fiction, as Mc Hale put it, “constructs spaces that allow for experiments opening up new ontological existences.” Delilo’s White Noise and Auster’s Citof Glass (COG) are on the surface very different, White Noise concerned with what Delilo refers to as “the electrical stuff of culture” dealing not with character in isolation but with the interdependence of characters, institutes and culture, while Auster’s fiction, as Woods put it “pivots on the actions of individuals within locked rooms”, and is preoccupied with possibilities of telling and the breaking up meta-narratives.

As Bernstein suggests, while Jameson’s formulations offer an explanatory power for Delilo’s novels, COG can more usefully be read in terms of Lyotard’s unpresentable, and in relation to a historical breakdown of faith. Both however as Lentrichia has said of Delilo’s novels “could not have been written before the mid-60’s.”

Both COG and WN can be seen as foregrounding the dilemma of the postmodern writer driven to pathologise postmodernity, a dilemma thematised within WN in Murray’s attempt to stay outside the signifying system of the culture he seeks to decode Both novels examine the dilemma that Jameson points out, it is impossible to view postmodernism as a historical situation and present a critique of it from outside.

As LeClair notes, WN, is built on genre subversions of disaster novels, and thrillers, as well as the “around the house” school of American fiction, discrediting the notion of the novel as a genre which at its roots holds up a “mirror of warm bourgeois family life” as Lentricchia put it. While some critics have described WN as a novel that simply doesn’t work as fiction the genre subversions within the text can be seen as discrediting what Saltzman calls the “subdue and codify mentality” for its inadequacy and imitation of absolutist behaviours. Similarly, Sorapure describes COG as a meta-anti-detective story, a form which can be seen as Spanos argues as a paradigmatic archtype of the postmodern imagination, in that it invokes impulses to detect in order to violently frustrate them by refusing the reader the comfort of a clear resolution.

The irony in both novels consists as Lentricchia says of Delilo’s WN in their “refusal to let readers off the hook by giving them an omniscient perspective.” In WN, critical authority cannot be abstracted from the first person teller, while in COG the idea of a controllong authority is undermined in the final revelation that Quinn’s story has been told not by an omniscient narrator but by a character who attempts to recover facts through detective activity. That character is ultimately revealed to be the kind of detective Quinn was at the beginning, sharing with the reader his feeling that it is “his duty not to overstep the bounds of the verifiable.”

Both novels dramatise the inadequacy and inaccuracy of inherited orders of meaning through a typical postmodern recourse to “narratorial unreliability, epistemological uncertainty, and existential contingency” in Bernstein’s words.

As Delilo notes, detective fiction typifies the highly plotted novel which both COG and WN subvert. in COG’s elaborate parody where as Sorapure says there is no crime, no solution and by the end no hero. All the mystery is contained in Quinn’s “desire to loose himself”, his disappearance constituting a recapitualition of his search for Stillman. Similarly in WN, plotlessness itself becomes a controlled effect, with the main character, Jack Gladney, determining to enjoy “these aimless days.”

However, plot gradually enmeshes the hero, foregrounding the way in which WN like COG develops an interrelationship between plotting and death. In this sense the dream of an unpatterend life in tension with “an abiding am dread that someone else is patterning your life” in Tanner’s words is central to both authors. As Johnson argues, Delilo’s novels often contain plots within plots representing the conspiratorial models of the world, deploying the domestic novel to show in Lentricchia’s words “the coercive environment within which social private life is led”.

This is foregrounded in the shopping trip episode in WN, which seems to be shown as a way to recover a sense of fulfilment, but ends with the family going to their respective rooms “wishing to be alone” emphasising the novels concern with “invasions of the self that would be autonomous” in Lentricchia’s words. As Mobilio says Delilo’s Americans are often apprentice schizophrenics living in wilful isolation.

As Saltzman argues, Delilo’s novel roots out “the menace beneath the surface of contemporary America, nowhere so insidious as in language.” This has often been seen as a point of contrast between the two writers, with critics such as Barone pointing out that where in Delilo’s novels it is media that confuses, in Auster’s fiction it is language itself, as is suggested by Quinn’s meditations on language in CoG where he says “if a tree wasn’t a tree”.

Alison Russel argues the trilogy as a whole is a “deconstruction of logocentrism of a language grounded in the metaphysics of presence”. On the other hand WN’s concern with what Lentricchia calls “the poetry of media glut” can be seen in the writer’s technique of using brand-names to break up the text, inserting words like Cable Nature at odd intervals, and revealing the reduction of the world to postmodern simulacra in a way which suggests the way WN contests the simulacrization process “not by denying or lamenting it but by problematising the entire notion of the representation of reality” as Hutcheon puts it.

This problematising of representation can also be seen in COG where as Sorapure points out, Quinn’s knowledge about crime is conditioned by media representations. As in WN, where Jack’s murder plot seems based on the improbabilities of TV crime, in COG Quinn’s approach to an actual case as if it were a story representing a bizarre inversion of reality and represention. This inversion seems similar to the Simuvac scene in WN.

This loss of signifying function is foregrounded in WN, where as Saltzman notes Dylar produces effects which inverse the earlier Sausarrean nightmare in Delilo’s the Engineer of Moonlight, in the “murderous conversion of words and things” represented in Mink. As Duval suggests, Mink’s character can be seen in terms of Jameson’s idea of the schizophrenic , living “a series of pure presents in time,” and in this sense like Peter Stillman, he represents in Duval’s words the “dream of unmediated mediation revealed as postmodernity’s schizophrenic nightmare.”

In COG, as Sorapure notes, Stillman’s attempt to infuse words with meanings, a project which can be compared to that of the Abecedarians in Delilo’s the Names, highlights the impossibility of the authorial project which presupposes a true language to which the author has special access. As Chenetier says, in Auster’s novels language is less a matter of black and white than a superimposition of blank and want, what Finkelstein describes as white prose “studiously resisting interpretation”. Similarly as Saltzman argues Delilo’s novels foreground a “consistent sense that language proliferates enigmas it can’t dissolve.”

However some critics have pointed out it would be simplistic to see Delilo’s novel as if written as an example of what theorists have been saying about socio-cultural conditions. Similarly as Barone has argued, to read Auster’s fiction “merely as an illustration for a particular definition of postmodernism is severly to limit it”. As Barone argues Auster’s trilogy can in fact be seen as a synthesis of postmodern themes, pre-modern questions and a sufficient realism., preserving as McPheron says “the tradition notions of referentiality.”

Like COG, Delilo can be seen as destablizing and problematising realism from within, meeting the novel reading audience half-way, COG’s using metafictional devices not in a way which disrupts the reading process, but embedding “a philosophical investigation on the nature of fiction within a narrative that never takes itself to be the real itself” as Barone puts it. Similarly Diane Johnson describes WN as a novel of ideas, its use of the first person a “concession to the old-fashioned wish for somebody to stumble through the narrative thinking the thoughts.”

Bonen argues that Delilo’s idea of language is not commensurate with theories propounded by postmodernism, going beyond language as a flow of signifiers to see it as a way to “bridge the lonely distances” as James says in The Names.. Instead of the postmodern as “decentred ahistorical pastiche, nihilism and despair,” Barone argues Auster’s novels confront the difficulties of communication “to demonstrate the continuing important of authentic connection.”

Bonen sees Wilder’s dirge and Steffie’s mediaspeak in WN not as ironizing transcendence as Wilcox argues but as manifestations of the attempt to communicate a death fear, foregrounding a “frankly unpostmodern pathos” which is not a celebration of white noise but a realization that “to know what it is to be human is to know what it is to die” suggesting as Delilo says that the “extraordinary wonder of things” is related to the “extraordinary dread…we try to keep on the surface of our perceptions.” As Delilo’s novel is influenced Becker’s Denial of Death, Bonen arguing the novel presents communicating death fear as potentially enabling, Auster’s fiction can be read in relation to Hamsun’s Hunger, seeing the “existential art” of preserving hunger in the spiritual and metaphorical sense as “a way of looking death in the face… death as the abrupt and absurd end of life” as Auster says.

As in WN where insulation becomes infiltration, Jack seeking to rid himself of the “sorrowful weight” of possessions, COG draws to a close with negation, Quinn on his bare floor, survival becoming like Delilo’s Ratner’s Star, a question of existing “as close to one’s center as possible.”

Wirth argues that this documentation of the reduction of the subject in COG and the atmosphere in which the heroic agent undertakes the ordeal bespeaks nostalgia, as Maltby argues that the use of visionary moments in WN aligns the work with Romantic sensibility rather than postmodernism. However as LeClair notes, WN ends not with the “exalted narrative life” of a sublime sky but with the supermarket and Jack’s “uncertain acceptance of uncertainty” an uncertainity illustrated in his factual narration of Wilder’s miraculous ride. As WN ends with uncertaintly in COG Quinn abandons his early belief that “human behave could be understood”.

As MV Moses argues, WN illustrates Delilo’s argument that “attempts to impose conceptual clarity” can be dangerous, as is illustrated by Murray who argues that “in theory violence is a form of rebirth”. Both novels ultimately foreground not the inevitability of a solution but the inevitably widening horizon of the mystery in endings which as Weisenburger put it refuse “predictive millenialist inscriptions of the end.”


written: 2008
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