Iraq US soldier 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
It is not hard to imagine why an author would want to invent a world where history plays out differently. No shortage of writers have recently found themselves tempted by this conceit (Philip Roth and Michael Chabon to name a couple) and now with his latest novel, Man in the Dark, Paul Auster takes a stab at this exercise.
But like many of Auster's novels, a crisscross of competing narratives and meta-texts make this book more than just an exercise in counterfactual imagining. It tries to shed some light on what it means to write and tell a story, but in typical Auster fashion, the route is a tad circuitous.
The book centers around August Brill, a 72-year-old retired book reviewer who invents stories to distract himself from thinking about the tragedies that have recently befallen his family. "They may not add up to much, but as long as I'm inside them, they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget," he says.
When we meet him, Brill has moved into his daughter's house in Vermont to recover from a recent car accident and to mourn the death of his wife. But the house is full of ghosts ("grieving wounded souls"). His daughter's husband recently divorced her, and his granddaughter moved in after her boyfriend Titus was gruesomely killed while working as a contractor in Iraq.
It is these tragedies that Brill wishes to avoid as he lies awake at night, unable to fall asleep. In the darkness, Brill invents a dystopian tale full of its own tragedy and violence. In it, Owen Brick, a 29-year-old from Queens, who makes his living performing magic tricks at children's birthday parties, wakes to find he has been recruited as a soldier in an alternate reality where America is not at war with Iraq, but rather with itself. New York and 15 other states break off from the union following the disputed 2000 presidential election. Brick has been recruited to join the secessionist army. His task is to end the war by killing its creator, August Brill. "Everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head. Eliminate that head, and the war stops. It's that simple," he muses.
Let's get it straight: The writer Paul Auster invents a writer August Brill who invents a character Owen Brick whose task it is to kill Brill.
Here the writer is a kind of god, but one who wishes to undermine himself in a world where fiction and reality eventually become one and the same. Peeking through the surface of much of this book is Auster's own attempt to grapple with the act of writing, at once life-giving and frightening. This is familiar territory for Auster, who finds his way back to this material time and again like a wound that doesn't heal.
What's different is the book's time line. The novel unfolds over a long night's journey into day and is as much a meditation on darkness as anything else. Descriptions ring biblical ("the black center of the dead of night"), and at times one feels transported to the first few verses of Genesis where the landscape is barren but full of potential. As each hour passes, the stories thicken, and the lines between reality and fiction blur, until Brill can barely distinguish one from the other. Where one war ends, another goes on, and one is left to wonder whether they aren't really one and the same, America at war with Iraq and America at war with itself. "The real and imagined are one," Brill says as dawn nears and the book comes to a close.
But no matter how hard he tries, the stories Brill tells never succeed in distracting him from his own life. They serve instead to return him always to himself and the world he has moved away from, as they are intended to do to us. Unfortunately, Auster's narrative tricks end up distracting the reader. At times he seems to be trying too hard to write a book about war, while his most compelling subject, that of Brill's family and the personal wars that each generation has suffered, gets short-changed. Like Brill, Auster seems afraid of getting too close. He relies on complicated narrative techniques to undercut the more sentimental parts of the story, and at times the characters feel only half ripe.
It takes Brill (and Auster) two-thirds of the book to put the tale within a tale to rest, and begin to face what he has been avoiding all along. Lying next to his granddaughter in the thick of night, Brill revisits "the nuts and bolts" of his life: his courtship and marriage to a professional singer whom he betrays, after 17 years of marriage, with a young novelist who later leaves him. By the end of this truth-telling, grandfather and granddaughter together are ready to face what both have been avoiding most, the story of Titus's gruesome fate.
This final tale and the book's dedication to David Grossman and his family after the loss of their son Uri in the Second Lebanon War remind us of the tragic costs of war. Auster stops short of including himself in the novel, but one is left to wonder whether this book is his attempt to distract himself, as Brill tries and fails to do. Down the line Man in the Dark might easily be read alongside other classics of American antiwar literature, where in part it belongs. But stories, and what they do to us and for us, are the real heart of the book, and for that we should be grateful.
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