Thursday, July 3, 2008
Review: Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
Henry Holt; August 19, 2008
Like most novelists whose work will outlive them, Paul Auster rarely deals in the sort of topicality that traps books in time. He didn’t take time in ’80s novels such as City of Glass or Moon Palace to ruminate on Reaganomics, Iran-Contra, or Glasnost; nor did he waste words in taut ’90s outings such as Leviathan or Timbuktu mewling about Gen-X malaise or presidential sex scandals. This is not to say Auster’s novels have been out of step with the times, inherently escapist, or blithely insensate to the realities of the eras in which they’ve been written. But perhaps more consistently than any other literary writer of his generation, Auster has fashioned worlds so engrossing in their invention that to connect them too concretely to the familiar mundanities of our own dimension would somehow diminish them.
If a novelist needs a reason to keep separate the world in which he writes and the worlds of which he writes, Auster has an especially good one: Most of his books have layers of reality—written and lived—already etched into their pages. His last fully realized novel, The Brooklyn Follies (2005), incorporates just such a layering effect through “The Book of Human Folly,” an accumulation of random musings that protagonist Nathan Glass writes as a dying old man “trying to keep himself entertained.” The Brooklyn Follies incorporates most of the narrative elements familiar to Auster readers—dispatches from the existential void, intricate plotting, stories within stories, lives within lives—even though Auster himself seems more interested in entertaining readers than in unsettling them, at least compared to more challenging earlier works like Leviathan and Oracle Night.
But The Brooklyn Follies diverges most sharply from previous Auster novels in the final pages, when the world of his readers and the world of his characters collide as never before. Nathan Glass awakens to a lovely Brooklyn morning with his story resolved and all more or less right in his world, but the dramatic irony is thicker than he can possibly imagine, given that the morning in question just happens to be September 11, 2001. I’m making this sound more trite and conveniently coincidental than it actually is; the ending works quite well. Though Auster would be first to question the idea that there's anything "natural" about the nature of novels, and the traditional relationship of reader and writer and story (The New York Trilogy was about nothing if not blurring those distinctions), perhaps allowing 9/11 to intrude on his story at that point was just a natural conclusion for a writer so rooted in New York City (and deeply affected by the events of that day), bound to the inescapable truth of the city's 21st-Century existence.
Or maybe choosing to have Nathan Glass’s world intersect with our own was simply another provocative Austerian device. After all, his books have always operated at simultaneous cross-purposes: carrying us away in the thrilling machinations of his characterization and plotting, while repeatedly shaking loose the story’s grip by exposing or deconstructing the machinery of writing or the voyeurism of reading. The fact that he’s consistently managed to accomplish these two opposed tasks through generally straightforward, lucid, and conventional narrative structure and style—eschewing the post-structuralist banalities of most metafiction—underscores his signature gift.
Three years and two novels later, with the forthcoming publication of Auster’s latest work of fiction, Man in the Dark, it’s possible to see the end of The Brooklyn Follies in an entirely new light. From the outset, Man in the Dark both acknowledges 9/11 and poses the question: Is it possible to tell a contemporary story of a world where 9/11—and the senseless war that's been its ongoing aftermath—never happened?
Man in the Dark quickly arrives in such a world—or, more accurately, in such a story. A man finds himself trapped in a hole with no means of escape, and no idea where he is or how he got there. Relatively quickly, he gets a few clues: He’s Owen Brick, a soldier in a war in an “American wilderness” he doesn’t recognize, on a mission to kill the man responsible for the conflict. First we learn a bit more about the war that surrounds him: It’s a civil war that began in late 2000, following the contested presidential election, when several states, including New York, elected to secede (with the support of most of Europe) from the U.S. We're in sci-fi/alternate-history country here; the rest of what Brick knows about 21st-Century America--9/11, the war in Iraq--has never come to pass. An auspicious beginning, to be sure. We also know from the get-go that these events are taking place within a story that a bed-ridden, insomniac old man (the titular man in the dark) named August Brill is telling himself to keep his mind off the bitter recriminations of his own memories.
All of this lands us in familiar Auster territory: not just the story-within-a-story conceit, but also extremely similar terrain to Travels in the Scriptorium, the intriguing but skeletal novella the famously deliberate novelist cranked out between The Brooklyn Follies and Man in the Dark. The opening section of Man in the Dark is part rehash, part inversion of Travels. In Travels, an unnamed man sits imprisoned in a place he doesn’t know how he got to, punished for crimes he can’t recall. Mr. Blank, as he’s called (a name that gets a tossed-off shout-out in Man in the Dark), has spent his life sending people on dangerous and often deadly missions, for no apparent reason other than his own amusement. Most of his minions turn out to be characters from Auster’s earlier books.
Many critics dismissed The Brooklyn Follies as “Auster lite” because so many familiar Auster devices seemed to be played for laughs; Travels strikes me as “Auster heavy” since it lacks the leavening effect of an ingenious and diverting plot—something Auster has always delivered (with the exception of the grinding sci-fi dystopia In the Country of Last Things)—rendering it more intellectual exercise than novel. Man in the Dark, which unceremoniously ditches the Owen Brick story when the old man either tires of telling it to himself or realizes he doesn’t know how to resolve it, is ultimately more dissatisfying than Travels because Man in the Dark does, at first, seem to be going somewhere.
Auster’s storyteller-characters have written themselves into corners before—it happens (literally) with Sidney Orr’s blue notebook story in Oracle Night, but in the whirlwind of that novel it works, and seems purposeful, just as noteworthy in its truncation as it might have been had Orr continued to write it. In Man in the Dark, the interior tale just seems dropped, the weird world rolling on (in the words of the novel’s closing bon mot), in a way that smacks of disengagement on the author’s part. At some point I begin to wonder if to be in the mind of Auster is to give all his acts of deconstruction equal weight and credence, or if I should just give in to my suspicion that there’s as little here as meets the eye, and that Man in the Dark seems half-baked because it is.
I suspect as well that as we see more reviews of this book, most reviewers will attempt to cast Man in the Dark as a reckoning for our wretched times, a sweeping indictment of our modern-day masters of war and a blast of reality for a world deluded by its own carefully crafted illusions. I wish Man in the Dark were that book, but it’s not. There’s no doubting Auster’s anger and frustration, the power of the dark vision in the abandoned sub-narrative (a raging war at home as the necessary alternative to the war taken on the road), and there’s no question he’s created some compelling and searing images and moments in this book. But he also seems more and more like an old man telling himself a story that he can take or leave at any time. This is not the sort of conviction that makes a book “the only world that exists for the person who reads it” (to paraphrase Leviathan), and it’s a sad state of affairs for an author who once said that writing, for him, was “a matter of survival.”
That said, there’s more to this book than a ditched sub-narrative, although not nearly as much as one would hope. Brill isn’t alone in the dark; sharing that darkness with him are his daughter and granddaughter, who have taken the widower into their house to assist his convalescence, and huddled together to heal from loss and tragedy in their own lives. While the daughter is, oddly, a near-non entity in the book, the granddaughter enjoys some lively conversations with Brill that take up most of the pages after Brick’s story falls by the wayside, although their talks about the history of Brill's marriage turn out to be some of the least satisfying writing Auster has ever done. The granddaughter's own story ultimately ties the book tragically—if too sensationalistically—to the brutality and horror of the war in Iraq.
Man in the Dark is not without its moments, even if the climactic revelation of how the war has come home to Brill and his family isn’t one of them. Auster’s newfound broadside stance does resonate at times. The author’s overarching take on post-9/11 America and the war in Iraq certainly rings true, and Man in the Dark is undoubtedly a book for our time—it’s just not a very good one, at least by Auster standards.
Perhaps what makes Man in the Dark of our time most of all is not so much its subject matter as the way I’ve found to appreciate it. More than just a novel of war, Man in the Dark is also a book for the scattershot attention spans of the YouTube and iTunes era, when the best parts are so easily extracted and enjoyed apart from the whole. Like a new album that’s mostly filler, but can be celebrated for one or two strong tracks without even having to purchase the rest, Man in the Dark is best appreciated for a few great licks that pop up throughout the book, and are genuinely memorable, riveting, and thought-provoking in the best Auster fashion. Perhaps best of all is his riff on the vital role of inanimate objects in art film (in a conversation between Brill and his granddaughter)—a wonderful echo of the marvelous filmic excavations of The Book of Illusions. Does anyone render the language of film in written language better than Paul Auster?
If nothing else, this lovely digression serves as a reminder that the 61-year-old Auster (hardly an old man at all) retains the gifts that have made him nearly peerless among American writers of the last quarter century. But the question remains of how he sees himself these days: as the fearless, visionary novelist who taught himself how to die at a young age and lived to produce the titanic Leviathan and The Book of Illusions, or as an old man telling himself stories that will literally kill him (as turns out to be the case in Man in the Dark) if he brings them to their natural and full resolution?
Here’s hoping Auster’s next book doesn’t so much address that question as render it moot.
Click here to pre-order Man in the Dark from Powell's Books.