September 16, 2008
Paul Auster: Man in the Dark
Paul Auster seems to be experiencing a late (if his 60s isn’t too early to be saying late) creative surge akin to Philip Roth’s. This will be the third new book from him that I’ve written about since I started this blog 18 months ago. His last, Travels in the Scriptorium, seemed to me to be a little too inward-looking; but the previous novel, The Brooklyn Follies, although played pretty straight, gave me greater insight into Auster’s work and crystallised him for me as a writer it is necessary to read. Others must have agreed, as it is the latter and not the former title which gets “By the author of” billing on the cover here.
Man in the Dark continues Auster’s tendency toward slimness of late, at 180 pages top to tail. It also continues many other tendencies of his, but in a much more satisfying way than Travels in the Scriptorium. There, the visitations were from old Auster characters; here, themes and settings recur. We have meditations on cinema (The Book of Illusions), political engagement (Leviathan), a dystopian world (In the County of Last Things) and stories within stories within stories (pretty much everything Auster has written).
Here, the frame is the narrative of August Brill – most of the names, as usual with Auster, are five-letter monosyllables – an elderly writer trying to get to sleep in his daughter’s house. Brill is a retired journalist, conscious of his role in producing “decades of ephemera, mounds of burned-up and recycled newsprint,” and in the process of writing a memoir as a promise to his daughter. We do not get the memoir, at least not at first, but instead a story which Brill tells in order to pass the hours of insomnia. “That’s all I want now – my little story to keep the ghosts away.”
The story tells of Owen Brick, a young man who has woken up in an alternate world, where civil war has erupted in America following the 2000 Presidential Election, when George Bush was declared victor by the Supreme Court. This led to states on the east and west coasts seceding from the Union, and military attacks on them by the remaining federal government. However, the secessionists are aware that this is all the product of a man’s imagination, and recruit Brick to travel back to the real world and kill Brill. (“He invented it, and everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head. Eliminate the head, and the war stops.”) On the way, in the warring world, Brick endures frustrating, circular encounters with locals:
Excuse me, Brick says. Could you tell me if this is the road to Wellington?
The woman stops and looks at Brick with uncomprehending eyes. He notes a small tuft of whiskers sprouting from her chin, her wrinkled mouth, her gnarled, arthritic hands. Wellington? she says. Who asked you?
No one asked me, Brick says. I’m asking you.
Me? What do I have to do with it? I don’t even know you.
And I don’t know you. All I’m asking is if this is the road to Wellington.
The woman scrutinizes Brick for a moment and says, It’ll cost you five bucks.
Five bucks for a yes or no? You must be crazy.
Everyone’s crazy around here. Are you trying to tell me you’re not?
I’m not trying to tell you anything. I just want to know where I am.
You’re standing in a road, nitwit.
Yes, fine, I’m standing in a road, but what I want to know is if this road leads to Wellington.
Forget it, Brick says, by now at the limit of his patience. I’ll figure it out for myself.
Figure out what? the woman asks.
Brick’s sense of alienation is reflected by his creator’s. Brill is tortured by his memories of his wife’s death, and also that of his granddaughter’s boyfriend, Titus, who was killed while serving in Iraq. Brill’s story is a way of forgetting what he cannot help remembering.
Concentration can be a problem, however, and more often than not my mind eventually drifts away from the story I’m trying to tell to the things I don’t want to think about. There’s nothing to be done. I fail again and again, fail more often than I succeed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best effort.
The last sentence recalls Samuel Beckett (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”) and indeed Brill’s self-examination – his unwillingness to continue but inability to stop – as a whole brings to mind the famous last lines of Beckett’s trilogy (“…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”). This is no surprise, as Auster has not hidden his debt to Beckett (explicitly, a character in The Music of Chance was named Pozzi to chime with Pozzo from Waiting for Godot). Brill has Brick make the following exchange with his girlfriend as he decides whether or not to kill his creator:
So what am I supposed to do?
What do you mean, nothing?
We start living again. You do your job, I do mine. We eat and sleep and pay the bills. We wash the dishes and vacuum the floor. We make a baby together. You put me in the bath and shampoo my hair. I rub your back. You learn new tricks. We visit your parents and listen to your mother complain about her health. We go on, baby, and live our little life. That’s what I’m talking about. Nothing.
As well as Beckett, Kafka seems never far – Brick’s situation pretty well fits popular understandings of the word kafkaesque (the second time I’ve (mis)used it this week) – and the echo in the name of Brill’s granddaughter, Katya, is hardly accidental. But wait – Camus gets a look-in too, explicitly named in the text, and also when Brick’s reflections on suicide seem to recall The Myth of Sisyphus.
All this may well make Man in the Dark (the title seems to refer to Brill’s nocturnal state, Titus’s death, and the human condition) seem a sterile and self-indulgent confection. There will be many, even admirers of Auster’s earlier work, who consider it so. For me, however, it was a valuable and welcome return to Auster’s world – or worlds. He is a writer who successfully straddles literary styles, interested and able to invoke both ideas and plot with economy. His great strength is that it would be impossible to say what aspects of the novel are foremost in his intentions, as the all-round performance is so convincing. This risks trying to make him all things to all men, but it is a risk he takes and which pays off. Most interestingly, in a world where readers consider story to be either the only important thing in a novel, or a superfluous curse, Auster takes the faint praise of pageturning and runs with it, dragging the reader along, challenging him to keep up.