“Shipwreck in the Heart of the City”

Robinson Crusoe in Paul Auster’s Early Prose

  • Joachim Harst


Paul Auster’s City of Glass, first published in 1985, is usually read as a postmodern detective novel. The article explores in how far the case of the protagonist Daniel Quinn evolves into an inquiry into language. Auster’s novel abounds in references to language philosophy in general and religious interpretation in particular. The text’s meta-literary level is furthermore reinforced by the fact that Quinn himself has been a writer of mystery novels and accepts the case under the name of Paul Auster, PI.

As a postmodern detective novel, the text circles around its genre, deconstructing topical notions such as the ‘case’ and citing the commonplace language of hardboiled detectives as well as Poe’s archetypical Dupin. Furthermore, the novel also refers to completely different texts and genres: Milton’s Christian epic Paradise Lost, for example, is allotted an important position in the 6th chapter with its speculations about a regaining of the Adamic language. The allusions to the puritan poet Milton exemplify how Auster synthesizes a postmodern inquiry into genre and language with references to “premodern moral questions” , highlighting interesting analogies between post- and premodern practices of reading and writing. In this context the analysis focuses on the subtle references to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the best-selling puritan “spiritual autobiography” about the survival of a castaway on a remote Caribbean island, which have not yet been accorded scholarly attention.