'Man in the Dark' by Paul Auster
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This is a strange time for American literature. The horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, drew a line in the culture, as surely as the global conflagration of the world wars, which we can never cross. We are now forever in post-9/11 America.
Unlike the work inspired by those previously mentioned wars such as "The Sun Also Rises" or "The Naked and the Dead," the national literature has been unable to respond with anything resembling a definitive statement of the times in which we now find ourselves living.
By Paul Auster
Paul Auster is the latest author to make the attempt, and "Man in the Dark" is yet another misfire in a disappointing canon that includes Don DeLillo's "Falling Man," John Updike's "Terrorist," Nicholson Baker's "Checkpoint" and Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," to name a few.
August Brill, our titular man in the dark, hasn't been sleeping. He has moved in with his daughter after being injured in a car accident.
A once noted book critic, Brill is tentatively at work on his memoirs. Unfortunately, the past is not an especially inviting place. So rather than work on his book, he spends his days watching movies with his grieving granddaughter, who has also returned home a refugee from the past.
In the wee small hours, with sleep an impossibility, Brill tells himself stories. They are strange fantasies invented on the fly to distract himself from the sad circumstances that have brought the three together in the little house.
The story he narrates on the night when this brief novel takes place involves a man named Owen Brick, who one day wakes to find himself in a hole in the ground in an American bloody civil war.
Owen learns that in this parallel United States, 9/11 and the Iraq war never happened. Yet George W. Bush is president, and despite the absence of these events, he still manages to wreck the country. As it is breathlessly explained to Brick:
"The election of 2000 ... just after the Supreme Court decision ... protests ... riots in the major cities ... a movement to abolish the Electoral College ... defeat of the bill in Congress ... a new movement ... led by the mayor and borough presidents of New York City ... secession ... Federal troops attack."
Brick's mission in this new world is to assassinate the one man responsible for the war. Much to Brick's surprise the culprit is not Bush but an aging book critic named Brill who exists in Brick's own America.
This is pretty heavy-handed stuff telegraphing Brill's depression and suicidal leanings, his wish to no longer exist without his wife who had died. Halfway through the novel, Brill suddenly dispatches Brick in quick fashion, bored with his own fiction.
Auster throws a few more ingredients into play -- the biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter; the films "The Bicycle Thief," "Grand Illusion" and "The World of Apu"; and the kidnapping and murder of the granddaughter's boyfriend in Iraq.
At a spare 180 pages, "Man in the Dark" is a mystifyingly languid piece of writing. Considering its brevity, Auster's insistence in recapping the plots of the three films is an odd choice. It's space that should have been given to character study rather than film reviews.
We spend the whole novel inside Brill's head but never really see the man. We never properly connect to his emotional state, and as a result his character, as well as the others, remains ill-defined at best.
Witness to a riot in his younger days, Brill voices what appears to be Auster's point:
"[O]nce you witness violence on that scale, it isn't difficult to imagine something worse, and once your mind is capable of doing that, you understand that the worst possibilities of the imagination are the country you live in."
As indictments of our particular historical moment go, this is tepid stuff at best. "Man in the Dark" understands that we have gone off course as a country, but in its hesitancy and lack of vision Auster's work leaves the reader as much in the dark as to the author's purpose as August Brill himself.
First Published August 31, 2008 12:00 am