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Such a Fearful Thing to Love What Death Can Touch: Paul Auster Waxes Mortal

The Stop Smiling Review

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Friday, September 12, 2008


Man in the Dark
By Paul Auster
(Henry Holt and Company)

Reviewed by Michael Moreci

Going back as far as his first novel City of Glass, the New York-based author Paul Auster has been known for his sublime intellectual play, his text-within-a-text narrative structures. His œuvre calls to mind Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel,” with its manipulation of language and knowledge in ways that are contradictory, labyrinthine and endless. Borges’ story, incidentally, concerns the occupants of an infinite library containing books filled with seeming gibberish, who search the stacks for a mythical text that might be the key to deciphering them — and, not incidentally, establish their translator as God. Auster is one author with whom comparisons to Borges have been made, and his latest novel, Man in the Dark, is Borgesian inasmuch as it delivers the same layered storytelling methods and the same search for meaning in texts. Yet Dark’s narrative is far more intimate, more harrowing than anything Auster has done before; certainly more intimate in manner than Borges.

The novel is narrated by August Brill, a 72-year-old book critic who is resting in his daughter’s Vermont home so he can recover from injuries sustained in a horrific car crash. Brill is the titular man in the dark: He spends his nights in the guest bedroom, wide awake, the tragic memories of his life closing in on him in what he calls the “obsidian night that surrounds me.” To keep these memories at bay, Brill tells himself stories. One involves a magician named Owen Brick. Like many Auster creations, Brick wakes up with no idea of where he is or how he got there. He, too, is alone in the dark, confused and afraid.

The world in which Brill places Brick is an alternate-reality rendering of America. In this world, the Twin Towers never fell, the eastern seaboard States secede after the 2000 election and a bloody civil war subsequently ensues. America has become a torched and hopeless wasteland, similar to (though not as horrific as) the world presented in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Rather than the America he knew — where America is at war with Iraq and George W. Bush is president of a united America — Brick must now struggle to comprehend the actuality of living in a country torn apart physically as well as ideologically. Soon, however, Brick discovers the truth about this unfamiliar world, as to how he wound up there and — most crucially — why he is expected to fulfill the mission he has been given.

This story-wrapped-in-a-story is nothing new for Auster. His previous novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, is a likeminded meta-narrative, though more in the vein of Beckett than Borges. The novel is constructed on self-reference: the characters all appear in earlier works by Auster; the title itself is the name of a movie made by one such character. Auster is a philosophical author (perhaps that’s why the French adore him so) and his novels are vehicles for epistemological explorations, for meditations on identity and fate. Yet with Dark, Auster’s objective isn’t to question the very nature of reality, but to ponder the reasons why we envision counterfactual narratives to it in the first place. The resulting narrative is a mixture of the disgruntled moralist of The Brooklyn Follies with vintage Auster narrative manipulation.

The house Brill inhabits is mired in tragedy. Brill’s wife has recently passed away. His daughter’s husband has left her. His granddaughter’s boyfriend was recently murdered. Many may conclude that Auster is making a post-9/11 political statement out of this novel’s scenario, but, in truth, politics-with-a-capital-‘P’ have never been a concern of his. Auster is more focused on examining the center of one man’s emotional wreckage as mirrored in the destitution of the war-torn America that exists in Brill’s mind. There’s tender sentimentality in Dark, as Auster’s Brill — a possible meta-personification of the author himself — comes to terms with the trajectory of life, including his own: always ending in death, always alone. His description of his sister’s death — soon after her own husband’s passing — encapsulates Brill’s fears of the finality that is fast approaching:

“Betty died of a broken heart. Some people laugh when they hear that phrase, but that’s because they don’t know anything about the world. People die of broken hearts. It happens every day, and it will go on happening to the end of time.”

While there are many philosophical reasons for exploring the nature of reality, of parallel universes and quantum cosmology, Dark boils down the storyteller’s motivation for envisioning such possibilities. For much of his career, Auster has adroitly examined reality; he’s studied character anonymity and the possibility that nothing is as it seems. But even if, as Brill claims, “the mind has a mind of its own,” and all existence is meta, there is still the reality of waking life to deal with. Sometimes that reality is tragic; sometimes it’s full of pain and horror. Brill imagines an America, one whose reality is more grisly than his own, as a way to cope — to understand the hereafter of loss.

 

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