Are you a Paul Auster fan? Or, perhaps, are you emphatically not? Either way, read Man in the Dark, Auster’s latest, which is inventive, tender, and darkly lined with the American predicament.
August Brill, 72, lies sleepless through the night ruminating on his life and worrying about his mournful daughter and granddaughter, who are both asleep upstairs. All three have washed up on shore together in the wake of shattering loss. August’s wife Sonia has been dead for less than two years. Shortly after her death, August wrecks a car and breaks his leg, so his daughter Miriam brings him to live with her in Vermont. Miriam, for her part, has been alone since her husband walked out on her. Soon father and daughter will be joined by Katya, 23, “Miriam’s only child, who used to sleep with a young man named Titus Small, but Titus is dead now, and Katya sleeps alone with her broken heart.”
There’s much on August’s mind, and to hold it all at bay, he lies in the dark composing fictions in his head. He used to be a book critic and commands a sizable narrative toolbox, including Kafka’s deadpan absurdity and various parallel-universe tricks. Tonight, August amuses himself with his tale of Owen Brick, a young man who wakes up in a desolate, unknown place, is told he must carry out an assassination that will stop a civil war, and gradually learns that he has been transported into an alternate reality—one where there’s been no 9/11 or war in Iraq. George W. Bush is president, but several states, beginning with New York, have seceded after the 2000 election debacle. A marvelous political fantasy: no Iraqis being brutalized, no Islamists attacking—we’re just at war with ourselves. The ultimate twist comes when Owen learns that he’s supposed to kill the man whose idle imaginings are creating this brutal civil war: one August Brill, a retired critic living in Vermont in that other reality that is post-9/11 America.
Auster’s narrative game goes beyond a mere exercise in dexterity, for he sustains the uneasy awareness that August spins tales in order to escape, to avoid, to bury something, and yet the very movement of his stories inevitably unearths, dredges up, and discloses bits and pieces of his life and memories. In the pre-dawn hours, just as August is grasping for a new narrative thread that will rescue him from yet another unbidden memory, Katya knocks gently at the door and joins him in the dark. She can’t sleep, and wants to know the real story of his life with Sonia before her death—everything from falling in love and marriage to infidelity, divorce, and a reconciliation years later. I have said the novel is tender, knowing, of course, that tenderness doesn’t enjoy a high literary value in our time. All the greater, then, is Auster’s achievement in this long finale, in which August’s love story is punctuated and prodded by the questions that Katya asks in the hope of fleeing her own ghosts. In these pages, Auster manages to transcend both sentimentality and irony—the natural literary predators of simple affection.
The pun in the title, Man in the Dark, hints that there’s something essential that August himself doesn’t know, and the whole novel is pitched toward a revelation, which comes at the very end in two strokes. The first carries a shock even more violent than we might have expected; the second, milder but just as surprising, illuminates why Katya is so helplessly mired in her grief. Tenderness yoked to violence, literary experiment without irony—Paul Auster has outdone himself, perhaps precisely by not trying to outdo anything.