Click here to read reviewer Leslie Raith's take on Man in the Dark.
Writing a review of any Paul Auster novel is a daunting task. Writing about Man in the Dark is no exception. Auster is one of the best – and most original - American fiction writers alive. Each new book astounds its readers with its vocabulary, imagery and complex narratives full of surprises, twists and turns. It‘s hard to put an Auster book down to pursue more mundane tasks such as eating and sleeping.
Man in the Dark is an extremely timely book considering the current election. The book details a time such as we are in, when the country is clearly divided into two opposing camps. In Auster’s novel, the country is at war in Iraq; in the novel within the novel, the country is in an actual Civil War.
The protagonist is August Brill, a retired writer and book critic. His long-time French wife, Sonia, has just died. He lives in Vermont with his divorced daughter, Miriam, and her daughter, Katya, whose boyfriend, Titus, has been quite recently murdered. August is 72, sharp as a tack but needs a wheelchair. These are their circumstances: “It’s a house of grieving, wounded souls, and every night Brill lies awake in the dark trying not to think about his past, making up stories about other worlds.”
One of these stories is becoming a novel - about a man named Owen Brick, married, a professional magician, a man consigned, unwillingly, to be a soldier. America is at war with itself; 16 states have seceded from the Federals, have become independent. “…in 2004, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania join New York in the Independent States of America.” More states join later that year, and more in 2005. The “new country” establishes diplomatic relations with many other countries. Brill is the country’s and the war’s originator. Character Brick is commanded to kill Brill, his creator.
But Brill is having difficulty finishing the novel. He is terribly lonely without his wife. In his spare time, he and his grieving granddaughter watch and critique dozens of films. Nights are especially difficult: “…once again I’m in the dark, engulfed by the endless, soothing dark… Hours and hours until daybreak, the bulk of the night still in front of me.”
Within his novel, the character Owen Brick is having trouble following his orders. In the meantime, he reads author Brill’s book reviews while contemplating if he can meet and kill the older man.
As is true in all Auster’s fiction, repeated themes emerge. The narrators are often writers of either books or screenplays. Several books take place, at least in part, in Vermont. Several also include scenes in France (Auster lived in France in the early ‘70s.). In this novel, the author is named August or Augie. In Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story, he writes of another Auggie, who ends up in the film
Smoke (played by Harvey Keitel), for which Auster wrote the screenplay. His stories wind back and forth between reality and dreamlike sequences; all stories within stories are amazingly, unpredictably interrelated. The author often cleverly recommends films and books for the reader to consider.
Another repeated theme is good and evil (in this novel, for example, “…for only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing. They spend their lives forgiving others, but they can’t forgive themselves.”) and consist of multiple instances of serendipity and synchronicity.
Moon Palace (1989) remains my favorite Auster novel, but Man in the Dark is a small masterpiece.
Moon Palace, at 320 pages, is a more involved book in which the reader gets to know the eccentric characters more intimately. That said, read Man in the Dark (180 small pages), and then go back and read Moon Palace. Don’t forget to eat and sleep.