Paul Auster’s newest novel, Man in the Dark, has a lot in common with his one just prior, Travels in the Scriptorium. Both are old men that spend the entire narrative in a single room. Each novel is fairly brief, coming in at under 200 pages. And there are some links between the two, most noticeably the mention of Mr. Blank in this book, who is the protagonist of the first.
August Brill’s life has been shattered. His wife of many years is dead, his leg crushed in a car accident that has left him relatively immobile. He now lives with his grown daughter and her daughter, a young woman named Katya whose boyfriend has recently died. Brill can’t sleep at night, and rather than remember painful things, he imagines stories to pass the nights.
His creation is Owen Brick, a young magician who wakes up in an alternate world where 9/11 never happened and much of New England has seceded from the US because of the 2000 election debacle causing a civil war. He is recruited by the local militia and ordered to return to his own reality and kill the man who is creating the war: August Brill.
In typical Auster fashion, these narratives weave together and provide insight into the minds of both men. Brick returns to his regular life thinking that there is no possible way that Brill is a real person, but he finds a website full of his writings proving that not to be the case. Meanwhile, Brill muses that he hadn’t intended to place himself in the story in such a manner, but since the creator was in fact himself, he saw no reason to separate himself further from the narration.
This last fact proves quite interesting, for in some ways one wonders why Auster didn’t just place himself in the role of Brill. It’s something he’s done before in the New York Trilogy, and there are a lot of parallels between Auster and Mr. Blank in Scriptorium as well. Anyone familiar with his work is used to this sort of narrative trickery, and I for one find it quite fascinating. Though the plot of Man in the Dark doesn’t go in the direction I had assumed it would, it may be more powerful because of it. I don’t want to get too far into the climax so as not to spoil the book for anyone else.
Auster, a professed liberal, also uses this novel as a commentary on the state of the US over the past eight years. His belief is that Republicans stole the election of 2000, and that had the American people refused to go along with those decisions many things might not have happened. High on the list: 9/11. It’s not tat the world Brick wakes up in, a sort of parallel universe, is better than the one we live in today; in many ways, it’s not. But what I think Auster is hinting at is that the world we live in is the alternate universe. In the real universe, Al Gore is now completing his second term.
Always a polarizing presence on the book review scene, Auster seems to get over on his harsh critics here as well. Brill was a book reviewer his entire adult life, yet he never has the desire or capability to really write a book of his own. I’m thinking that his dismissive take on his own work may be a sort of tongue in cheek jab at critics in general.
Man in the Dark is a good Auster novel, though not a great one. Though highly political, especially compared to previous works, at heart this is just a story about a man trying to help the women in his life: his daughter and granddaughter.