Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Sunday Salon - Man in the Dark

Even though I finished it yesterday, it's taken me until today to formulate some semi-coherent thoughts on Paul Auster's newest novel, Man in the Dark. I guess I'm cheating since I finished it yesterday, but it makes for good Sunday fodder anyway. Incidentally, today has been bookless. Unless you count the reading I did for 'brary school this morning. It was largely about the digital evolution of libraries and reading in general (fascinating article about the Amazon Kindle). But I'll save it for another day.

Man in the Dark is a slim volume weighing in at only 180 pages. The key player is August Brill, a 70-something literary critic who lives with his daughter and granddaughter in Vermont as he's recovering from a car accident and the death of his wife (though those two events are unrelated). At night when he can't sleep, Brill lies in bed telling himself stories to pass the hours--namely, the tale of Owen Brick a magician who suddenly wakes up in an alternate America where 9/11 never happened and a civil war rages. As it turns out, in this alternative universe, the 2000 elections sparked secession of several states, thus the civil war. Owen Brick soon realizes that he's a key player in the war with one mission: assassinate the man responsible for the war...the godlike storyteller--one August Brill.

If you're at all familiar with Paul Auster's work, it's like a hall of mirrors (or so The Independent says). And I would agree. Many times Auster's work deals with an author that's either supremely confused or extremely powerful. In this case, we have both. Brill and Brick are really two sides of one coin: both are facing death in myriad ways, extremely stressed out and saddened by everyday life, and ultimately the reader realizes that Brill (and Brick) have something of a death wish. Brill is old, he's lost much of what he cares for in the world; Brick, having been thrown into an impossible situation for which he is not prepared, finds himself without the skills he needs to carry out his mission and is desperately trying to save those he loves.

Beyond Brill and Brick and their mess of an intertwined story, we meet Brill's daugher, Miriam, and his granddaughter, Katya. Katya and Brill spend long evenings, and sometimes even whole days, watching movies together as Katya (and the rest of her family) try to overcome the oppressive aftermath of her boyfriend's murder.

They're a sad lot, for sure, but somehow I never felt weighed down by sadness while I was reading this novel. Brill has a great sense of humor, and his reminiscences about his deceased wife are lovely. A little unlikely at times--the conversations he and Katya have--but ultimately full of compassion and admiration.

For the seasoned Auster reader this might be a "been there, done that" kind of read. He's up to his old tricks: authors, death, identity, fun intertextual references and screwy plot twists. However, I'm not terribly seasoned. I've read enough to know what Auster's got up his sleeves most of the time, but it's all still very interesting to me. It's admirable the way he allows the reader to understand August Brill through the (meta)fictional plight of Owen Brick. It's a biting commentary on the state of America and the war we're fighting. It's sci-fi, it's literary fiction, it's just plain craziness. But it's gorgeous, and the writing is fantastic, and it's all smashed into 180 pages.

How I would love to ride around in Paul Auster's brain for a day. I have a feeling I'd never want to leave.

Happy Sunday reading, everyone! I think I'll jump back into Hell Hath No Fury. It's hilarious and heartbreaking so far.


  1. I'm just picking out one teensy part of your post: the Kindle. I'm not sure how I'd feel about reading without tangibly holding the book, smelling the book, turning the book's pages. I'm interested in your thoughts when you get to posting them.

    Also, it's interesting how you could have so much to say about a little 180 page book. 180 pages can be a lot bigger than one thinks!

  2. I seem to have missed Auster somehow. I think I'll add this to my wishlist.

  3. Bellezza, I was unsure at first, but I've played with a friend's Kindle, and they've really done a good job making the electronic reading experience as similar to the book reading experience as possible. I'll post more about it later, but I've been pretty impressed.

    And yes, I was pretty impressed with this slim volume. Sometimes the brief books pack the most punch. :)

    Deb, definitely give him a go. I would suggest The New York Trilogy (really three novellas in one novel-length volume). It's generally considered his best.

  4. Sounds like classic Auster to me. Sigh. Onto the wish brick it goes. Thanks, Andiloo. Note that you're enabling right back at me. ;)

  5. I really need to read some Paul Auster, and this sounds like a great book to start with!

  6. LOL, I try my best, Nancy.

    Nymeth, I think he's right up your alley. A nice mix of literary and surreal.

  7. Wow, for such a short book this seems to really have a lot going on. I've been meaning to try some of Paul Auster's work but I have to say I've been a bit intimidated by it.. Must get over that! :)


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