It’s a hard day’s night for Auster’s ‘Man in the Dark’

August 19, 2012

It had been a while since I had read any work by Paul Auster, but I’ve always enjoyed his novels. Therefore, I eagerly bought his 2008 book Man in the Dark when I came across it the other week.

One issue Auster has probed repeatedly over the years is the nature of story-telling, and he returns to it in this tale. The narrator, August Brill, is lying sleeplessly in his bed — “another white night in the great American wilderness” — as the book opens. (The title works on multiple levels.)

Brill, a retired critic and one-time philanderer, lives in Vermont with his only child and his only grandchild. Theirs is a house of heartbreak. He is slowly convalescing from a car crash, the daughter is struggling to finish a biography and to put her philandering ex-husband out of mind, and the granddaughter is trying to come to grips with the death of her boyfriend.

Auster chronicles one sleepless moment in Brill’s night this way:

I feel a cough gathering in my chest, a faint rattle of phlegm buried deep in my bronchia, and before I can suppress it, the detonation comes blasting through my throat. Hack it up, propel the gunk northward, dislodge the slimy leftovers trapped in the tubes, but one try isn’t enough, nor two, nor three, and here I am in a full-blown spasm, my whole body convulsing from the onslaught. It’s my own fault. I stopped smoking years ago, but now that Katya is in the house with her ubiquitous American Spirits, I’ve begun to lapse into the old, dirty pleasures, cadging butts off her while we plunge through the entire corpus of world cinema, side by side on the sofa, blowing smoke in tandem, two locomotives chugging away from the loathsome, intolerable world, but without regret, I might add, without a second thought or single pang of remorse. It’s the companionship that counts, the conspiratorial bond, the fuck-you solidarity of the damned.

To distract himself from his and his families’ problems, Brill tells himself stories. Or rather, he spins a story about a magician named Owen Brick, who has been transported into an alternative reality and been tasked charged with murdering a man, someone whose imagination has conjured a second American civil war. Kill that person and the war will end, an incredulous Brick is told.

But Brill’s focus wanders, so Brick’s tale isn’t the only story that unspools here. The former critic describes movies he has seen; thus, the work of a director and screenwriter is filtered and interpreted by a viewer (Brill and Katya, his granddaughter), which actually reflects the view of the true story teller, Auster himself. The audience is both real (Auster and his readers) and fictional (the narrator and his grandchild).

At another point, Brill moves from his imagined war story to three (purportedly) real ones. The first is told by an ex-wife’s second cousin; it involves this relative’s experiences, including an overheard conversation. The second narrative is related by his daughter’s ex-boyfriend, who is actually relaying the words of his friend, who describes her grandmother’s unusual experience during the Second World War. The third tale comes from a nephew of Brill’s wife, who reiterates the well-known, and remarkable, marital history of a colleague.

How can we trust a narrator whose knowledge of events is often second- or third-hand? Why should we believe a narrative when it belongs to fiction, an entire category of untrue tales? Why do these stories compel belief and inspire wonder when they involve such unusual circumstances and coincidences? Why does the reader suspend disbelief when tales involve impossible or at least improbable elements? (See, for instance, Brick’s journey to an alternative universe in which one man’s imagination directly influences events.)

In the case of Man in the Dark, the answers to many of these questions involve Auster. He is a capable writer, one who has proven repeatedly that he is worth reading and trusting. Much of his charm comes from the clean, direct writing style that he often employs, as well as from the seemingly effortless way that he combines ordinary and amazing elements.

I will caution that Man in the Dark, at 180 pages, is a novella, not a full-scale novel; its ambition is necessarily curtailed by its relative brevity. I found some jarring and unexpected twists in the story difficult to accept at first. After finishing the book, however, I realized just what Auster was trying to do, and I came to feel that he had fitted the pieces of this book together perfectly.

I wouldn’t call Man in the Dark a home run. But it’s a solid and moving piece of work that many readers will likely enjoy.

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