Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt, 2008)
It sometimes seems as though Paul Auster is trying to single-handedly keep the literary tradition of mise en abyme alive. His latest novel, Man in the Dark, offers readers another story within a story about a writer’s dependence on his own creations, and his subjection to their whims and fancies. Auster has explored this theme before: In Travels in the Scriptorium, published only a year and a half ago, many of Auster’s past characters reappear to speak with an anonymous Mr. Blank, arguably a stand-in for the author himself. In The New York Trilogy, a detective spies on a man who sits in a room all day writing the story of the detective himself. The sense of writing being a dangerous, life-or-death activity appears again and again in his work.
In classic Auster fashion, Man in the Dark’s main character is a writer, in this case a successful book critic named August Brill, a man complete with a Pulitzer and a list of healthy neuroses. This time, however, Auster has positioned his protagonist in a larger, more complex world. Mr. Blank sat in a room alone, unaware of who he was or whence he came. The characters in The New York Trilogy ran around New York City in a provincial panic. Brill and his relations live in present-day America, plagued by illness, injury, heartbreak, and the malevolence of the current political climate. August’s wonderful French wife has just succumbed to cancer. His daughter writes a biography of the unhappily untalented Rose Hawthorne, daughter of the genius Nathaniel. His granddaughter’s lover has just been executed in Iraq. And that same granddaughter, grief-stricken and tormented, sits on the couch all day, watching foreign movies to numb her pain.
August Brill distracts himself from his own torments by inventing the story of a man named Owen Brick. Brick’s story is set in a different America: the character is transported from our post-9/11 world to a post-apocalyptic parallel universe in which September 11th did not happen. In this world, a violent secession followed the 2000 election, resulting in a bloody, ongoing civil war between the U.S. and the “Independent States of America,” a nation made up of the blue states of New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, etc. Brick is unsure why he is in this post-apocalyptic, desolate America, where millions have been killed—in this America, the war is being fought at home.
This being Auster, Brick is made aware of August Brill. This dismal world is being created by Mr. Brill himself, after all, and Brick has been transported to this world as an assassin. If a writer can wreak havoc on his characters, it seems, his characters can also kill their maker.
The merging of these two worlds—Brill’s complicated existence in our own dimension, and the profound misery that permeates Brick’s alternate reality—is beautifully done, but what is most interesting is the reflection of Brill’s imaginary world on his real one. To escape his own sadness, to “battle against himself in the trenches of night,” he has created a world filled with violence and hate into which he escapes. He has made himself a cruel despot, he has created characters who wish to kill him; his fantasy is, as Brick realizes, a fantasy of suicide.
When Brill allows his fantasies to recede and his real life emerges in the foreground of the novel, the book becomes a touching and thoughtful portrait of a man at the end of his life. His mind is intact, but his body has been crushed by a car accident and age. His wife is dead and his career is stalled. These personal tragedies are compounded by the greater dramas in the world surrounding him. There may be no civil war on American soil, but the threat of danger is palpable, the real war Brill’s country has instigated is luridly present every night on the television screen. He continually recedes into his own past, where there was no war, where the dramas were personal: adultery, career, fatherhood. The reader is transported into his past as well, another parallel universe both author and protagonist can control. Brill cannot control his present, no more than Auster can control the world outside his fiction. “Why is life so horrible, Grandpa?” Brill’s granddaughter asks. Brill replies,“Because it is, that’s all. It just is.”
Man in the Dark rubs the reader’s nose in the horrors of life; and yet, as he has done before and is sure to do again, Auster injects just enough love and mystery into his characters’ lives to make it all seem worthwhile.
Anna Wainwright is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.