Review: Man in the Dark

By David Herman, October 3, 2008
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By Paul Auster
Faber and Faber, £14.99

Paul Auster's thin new novel starts off as a story within a story. This is not news for Auster fans (or critics). The author of The Brooklyn Follies enjoys these games.

Augustus Brill, old, ill, virtually immobile following a serious car accident and mourning the death of his wife, now lives in an old house in Vermont with his daughter (divorced) and granddaughter (mourning the death of her boyfriend). He can't sleep so he makes up stories at night. One story is about Owen Brick, a young magician from New York who crosses over into an alternate reality where America is at war - with itself.

The magician wakes up somewhere that feels like contemporary America but isn't. It's an America where history has taken an odd turn. The liberal North has seceded and started a second civil war. Strange and unpleasant things keep happening to Brick. He has woken up in a world that is part-Kafka, part-Twilight Zone. Then he is told the only way out is to kill the man responsible for the war, who happens to be Augustus Brill.

So far, so annoying. Meta-fiction 101. Then, not surprisingly, Auster seems to lose interest in the story of the magician-cum-hitman. And then several things happen which will either redeem this novel or condemn it totally depending on your point of view. First, Auster/Brill starts telling a number of other stories. Short, compact, realistic and very powerful. Two involve the Holocaust and a third is a strange parable of the Cold War. Later we come to another story grounded in history, but this time in the present, which is just as violent, just as realistic.

Slowly we start to realise that this book is about a choice between two different kinds of storytelling. It is not that Auster can't do moving and realistic storytelling. He clearly can. It's rather that he's offering us a choice, just as he did in his previous novel, Travels in the Scriptorium.

The realistic mode of narrative involves characters who will draw you in and situations which will be immediately recognisable. The alternative is playful, full of games about narrative, stories within stories, battles between characters and the writers who create them. I can do both, Auster is stating, but I'm going to play around with your expectations.

This will alienate and even offend readers who do not find 9/11, Iraq and the Holocaust suitable subjects for literary games. Doubtless Auster fans will read on undeterred. But maybe it is time this sort of thing was left to consenting adults and for Auster to stop repeating himself and move on.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer.

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011