The novel City of Glass by Paul Auster begins with the main character, Quinn, getting a phone call in the middle of the night. Quinn is 35 years old, and he lost his wife and son five years before. He now writes mystery novels under the pen name William Wilson. The novels concern the same character, a private detective named Max Work.
When the phone rings, Quinn is lying in bed smoking a cigarette and reading. He answers, and a voice asks for Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency. Quinn tells the caller they have the wrong number and ignores the person’s protests.
The call comes again the next night, while Quinn is in the bathroom. Quinn does not hurry and only answers when the caller has already hung up. Quin decides to answer and play along the next time, but the call does not come through again for several nights.
The phone rings again on the night of the 19th of May. Quinn answers and says that he is Paul Auster. The caller tells him that someone is trying to kill them and that they need protection. Quinn agrees to meet the caller the next day in an apartment on 69th Street.
The next day, Quinn initially does not intend to keep his appointment, especially since it is not really his. However, as the morning passes, he finds himself getting dressed and getting ready to go out. It is only when he reaches the address the caller gave him that Quinn realizes what he is doing.
Quinn rings the doorbell, and the door is opened by a woman, which surprises Quinn. The woman introduces herself as Virginia Stillman and says that her husband, Peter, has been waiting for Quinn since early morning. She leads Quinn to the living room and goes to get her husband.
Quinn does not know how long he waits. When Peter eventually arrives, Quinn notices that he has a strange way of moving, as if he is not in control of his gestures. Quinn is sure Peter is the one who called him.
Peter begins talking. His way of expressing himself is unusual, filled with made-up words and repeated phrases. He also insists that Peter Stillman is not his real name.
Peter says that his father, also named Peter Stillman, believed that God has a language of his own, and if a child does not hear any human words, he learns to speak God’s language. To prove this theory, Stillman kept his son isolated from everyone for nine years, and beat Peter if he used normal words.
Peter also hints that his father was locked up and that he is soon to be released. Peter is sure his father will try to kill him, which is why he needs Quinn, who he thinks is Auster, to protect him. Peter is confident Quinn will succeed.
Quinn suddenly realizes it has gotten dark. Virginia enters the room and tells Peter he has to go. As Peter leaves the room, Virginia remains alone with Quinn. She tells him that Peter sometimes lies, but that some of the things he said were the truth. Quinn asks Virginia to tell him more.
Virginia explains that Peter’s father was a very wealthy and well-educated professor. He married Peter’s mother, and everything was fine until Peter turned two. Then, the mother died under mysterious circumstances. A nanny took care of Peter for six months, when Stillman suddenly fired her. He quit his job and set about to prove one of his theories about God’s language by locking Peter in a room, keeping him isolated from human contact, and beating him if he tried to use regular words.
This lasted for nine years, when there was a fire, which might not have been accidental. Peter’s father was sent to a mental institution, as was Peter. Virginia met Peter there and worked with him as his speech therapist. She married him because she wanted to get him out of the hospital.
Virginia then tells Quinn that Peter’s father is being released and will arrive at the Grand Central Station the following evening. She wants Quinn to follow him and make sure he does not come anywhere near Peter. Virginia wants Quinn to check in every day. She gives him a photograph of Peter’s father, but it was taken 20 years ago.
As Quinn leaves the house, Virginia kisses him unexpectedly. She tells Quinn that she believes he is the answer she was looking for.
Quinn is familiar with cases such as Peter’s. Before his wife and son died, he wrote a review for a book based on the experiences of the wild boy of Aveyron, so he researched the subject of children who grew up in extreme isolation. Quinn recalls that there are many cases of children brought up in isolation and many theories that they develop their own language, although no one has been able to prove that. In most cases, the children are unable to learn regular speech.
In particular, Quinn recalls Kaspar Hauser, another famous case, who was stabbed the day after he suddenly remembered he had been held in isolation and severely abused as a child. Quinn draws a parallel to Peter Stillman’s situation.
Quinn has not thought of this research for a very long time, because he cannot bear the idea of children suffering. He remembers the day of his son’s funeral. Quinn thinks that, even though he can do nothing for his own son, he feels it is extremely important to save Peter Stillman. Quinn reveals that his son’s name was also Peter.
Quinn realizes that he has spent fourteen hours at the Stillmans’ and that he is hungry. He goes to the Heights Luncheonette to eat something. There, he meets a man whose name he does not know, but with whom he has regular conversations about baseball, as they both support the same team. He and Quinn talk a bit about that night’s game.
After eating, Quinn buys a red notebook, where he plans to write his notes on the case. He gets home, takes off his clothes, and gets the notebook and Stillman’s photograph. For the first time in a long time, he writes his initials in the notebook, DQ, for Daniel Quinn.
Quinn writes several scattered reflections in his new notebook. He thinks Stillman looks like a good person, but that he also looks familiar. He tries to imagine what Peter went through living isolated by his father, but t...