Thursday, November 13, 2008

Paul Auster, "Man in the Dark"

"[W]hen sleep refuses to come . . . I lie in bed and tell myself stories. They might not add up to much, but as long as I'm inside them, they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget." So speaks August Brill, who escapes his crippled life as a 74-year-old widower by fantasizing of Owen Brick, a party magician who finds himself tasked--in an alternate America that is at war with itself--with killing the man who has created this world: August Brill. Dip that pen a bit deeper, and you'll see that Man in the Dark is just an extension of Paul Auster (no metafictional stranger: he goes way back to City of Glass) telling himself stories about a violent war that he can control, so that he doesn't have to face the America that he can't.

To aid in this distraction, there are the usual Austerian topics: films are discussed (The Bicycle Thief, Grand Illusion, and The World of Apu), philosophers are mulled (Giordano Bruno), and literature is imagined (Rose Hawthorne's memoir). But in trodding over such familiar themes (Brick's adventures resemble a cheap noir) and focusing so much on the ideal of using "inanimate objects as a means of expressing human emotions," the book falls flat. Auster's prose has always been written in a procedural fashion, but here it seems professorial, too, and we are too often told things like "Brick is feeling so lonely, so discombobulated by the events of the past twenty hours, he wishes she would abandon her post behind the counter and accompany him to the hotel, but he knows she can't, and he's too timid to ask her to make an exception for him." Worse still, this short 180-page novel devotes half its space to this truly imaginary character--in fact, even pages to an alternative history that only stresses the distracted state both Auster and Brill find themselves in. Philip Roth wrote of another country in The Plot Against America to illustrate something frightening about the world today; Auster writes of another world because he's bored of this one. Poor him. Poor us.

Thing is, the rest of the novel isn't bad. Brill doesn't just dream of Brick's dead-end life, he remembers--with lived-in details that specify right down to the special deals on dinner rolls--people from his family. His sister, Betty, leads him to think about her marriage to Gilbert Ross, and consequently to describe Gil's life--from the Newark riots in the 60s to his law practice in California and the "more than twenty pills a day to keep himself alive." In eight pages, Auster fleshes out two full lives and uses them to reflect upon his protagonist's own situation, so is it any wonder that the sections with Brick seem so irritatingly leaden?

Ultimately, Man in the Dark turns into the sort of book Gilead might've been if it were a dialogue, with Brill talking to his granddaughter, Katya, about how he'd married, divorced, and then reunited with her mother. It's a happy story, another distraction in the dark, meant to turn Katya's grief away from the love of her life's death in Iraq. All of us are in the dark, goes the logic, and we must all of us turn to stories to save us. So far as one's reading a book goes, however, why would anyone want to stay in the dark?

No comments: