September 16, 2008

Paul Auster: Man in the Dark

Posted in Auster Paul at 8:00 am by John Self

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.

Ten bucks.

Ten bucks?

Twenty bucks.

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?

Nothing.

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.

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19 Comments »

  1. KevinfromCanada said,

    I will admit that I find Auster not just challenging, but often frustrating — and it certainly looks from this review that this book would continue that. He always seems to come so close to describing something that I want to be interested in, and then moves somewhere else. I’ll give this one a try.

  2. It might sound strange but I find prose writing as pure poetry.Sheer pleasur to read him.

    I have not read this one although it is on my TBR pile. Sometimes work catches up and reading takes a beating.

    Glad I found your blog.

  3. Mrinal Bose said,

    Thanks for reviewing Paul Auster this time. Paul is a post-modernist, and has a cerebral but convincing style of addressing existential issues in his fiction. John, you’re right: he’s influenced by Kafka and Melville – the two writers whom he seems to have read a lot. I love reading his work.

  4. John Self said,

    Frustrating or pure poetry? I think I can see where both Kevin and gautami are coming from. Your experience, Kevin, would probably match my early experiences of Auster, and in particular books like Leviathan and Mr Vertigo which I didn’t much like first time around. I do now feel the need to reread his earlier books (or more accurately, the ones I read earlier) as I feel my appreciation of him has definitely deepened with the last half dozen books. Kevin, if you haven’t read it, I’d recommend The Book of Illusions as a ‘way in’ to Auster. What you describe as his coming close to describing something and then moving somewhere else seems to me connected to just how much matter he seems to cram into his books, and how much food he provides for the reader’s thought, all in that studiedly blank (Mr Blank from Travels in the Scriptorium is referred to in Man in the Dark) prose which I agree comes close to ‘pure poetry’.

    Melville, Mrinal, I hadn’t spotted. Indeed my only experience of Melville is Moby-Dick though I feel I really should read Billy Budd, Sailor and most of all Bartleby the Scrivener, both of which I have. Then again, that’s more experience I have of Beckett or Kafka (hence my reluctance to get into detail about how their influence works on Auster), and I still spotted those.

  5. Paul said,

    I like Paul Auster’s writing. I can’t get my head around those who take him to task for the ‘inwardness’ of some of his work, when he writes about writing, the self-consciousness of fiction, as if this self regard is something deliberately alienating of ‘the reader’, as if the art of fiction has not been partly defined by this impulse since Cervantes onwards.

    Lovely, enthusiastic and subtle review John, certainly does justice to the ideas and instincts that Auster writes out from. The mentions you make of Beckett; it is clear that he is not only an artistic influence at this stage of Auster’s work, but there was personal contact between them too. In James Knowlson’s biography of Samuel Beckett, ‘Damned to Fame’, Auster gets a brief mention through their acquaintance and correspondence from 1977.

    “He (Beckett) met the younger New York writer Paul Auster, who admired Beckett’s work and sent him copies of his own writing, including his translations of some poems of Andre du Bouchet, which Beckett enjoyed.”

    (then a footnote from one of Samuel’s letters to Paul said he found the translations to be ‘sensitive and enlightening’)

  6. John, thanks very much for your thoughtful comment on my post. I like to know what people in other countries think of us. I believe you have to live here to realize the extent of ignorance among the populace. No one reads, our educational system is a travesty, the media spouts slogans and most people won’t do any work to find out the truth. My own experiences lead me to think that we have more stupid people in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. Our campaigns are run like kindergarten and the sheer lunacy of Palin is beyond my understanding. What is worse – they love her. At least you live in a civilized country. I don’t know how I will convince my husband we have to move if McCain wins.

  7. KevinfromCanada said,

    Candy, I would be happy to offer you space in Canada, but unfortunately two other couples from the U.S. have already bid for our spare rooms if the McPain ticket does win. Sorry.

    It is true that Auster could be both pure poetry and frustrating (for me), because I am afraid my reading style makes almost all poetry frustrating for me (and that is no reflection on poets). I did — and still do — like Auster’s New York Trilogy (the new Folio Society version is a beautiful physical book if you don’t mind spending money for the quality of the production). I think the issue is that I have to be careful about just what my mood and frame of mind are when I pick him up. I appreciate the recommendation for The Book of Illusions — I’ll try that one next (it is going to be a while whatever my mood might be) before moving on.

  8. kimbofo said,

    I read this one a couple of weeks back and loved it. I’ve not read a great deal of Auster but I think he’s one of those writers you need to be in the mood to tackle. I find his prose style very easy to read, but the ideas he presents within can be challenging. A friend of mine thinks he’s a smart arse and I can kind of see where she’s coming from, but I’d prefer to think he’s just clever. And entertaining.

  9. John Self said,

    Paul, I had no idea that Auster had had contact with Beckett – very exciting. Naturally I share your inability to understand why writing about writing is seen as intrinsically inward-looking or sterile, when really I think it’s the opposite. To me it’s like a TV ad aimed at a 50s housewife: “If you like ‘Writing’, you’ll love new ‘Writing About Writing’!!”

    Candy, your comment is apt enough on this thread as I suspect from Man in the Dark that Auster shares your despair, and I remember a joke email doing the rounds after the 2004 election showing a redrawn map of America pretty much along the lines of his alternate world here, with the east and west coast states seceding from the Union. (Ah yes, here it is.)

    Kevin, Folio Society editions are lovely aren’t they? But I have given up on fetishising such chunky hardbacks for space-saving reasons.

    kimbofo, ‘clever and entertaining’ sums it up perfectly. I’ve just seen your review and back up your feelings entirely. Definitely too much to absorb in one reading.

  10. John, I remember that map as well. There was also a web site with people apologizing to the rest of the world. I have felt ashamed of my country ever since. And, living here, I have to say the religious crazies scare me as much or more as my own government these days.

    Kevin, thanks for the offer. I still have relatives in Canada. I don’t know if they would sponsor us but the problem is in convincing the rest of my family that, should McCain/Loony win, the country will be uninhabitable.

    I used to be proud of my country even with the awareness of its many shortcomings. Now I am sad and afraid.

  11. The election is fascinating to watch from an outsider’s point of view. In practice I doubt the more European-looking coastal states could ever secede, because they owe much of their economic success to the “rednecks” in the middle, who make the cars, food, oil and so forth.

  12. Actually Mr. Birch the red states need the blue states far more than the opposite. They rely on the social service agencies much, much more and even more so now that our economy has tanked. The red states are far deeper in debt. I have no doubt the blue states would do quite well without the ‘rednecks’. They are the ones who give our country such a bad name with their ignorance, stupidity, racism and bigotry. Not to say there isn’t plenty in the blue states as well, unfortunately. One of the many reasons I am terrified of the outcome of this election.

  13. KevinfromCanada said,

    When we moved into this house and I said to the renovation contractor “And we need 200 feet of bookshelves”, he looked at me like I was crazy. But did build the bookshelves and they are, alas, almost full. I can certainly never throw a book out, I can almost never give one away (what if I want to reread it sometime? or lend it? or John Self suddenly decides to review it?) And it is amazing how often I venture into the depths to find a book — like say, Paul Auster — that I am pretty sure I bought but don’t remember reading. John, you just need a bigger house.

    I’ll also admit I do love Folio Society volumes for certain “specials” that I know I want close at hand. Their Auster is good, their Deptford Trilogy even better — and the Scott Fitzgerald and James volumes get pride of place. I counted today — I’ve only bought 29 (or got them on bonus offers) and I do love every one. One thing I like about John’s reviews is how much he appreciates the tactile side of the books he reads — so do I. Sometime I will give you my Everyman’s Library story.

    And without being too political, Jonathan Birch, (and as a former Pennsylvanian from Pittsburgh), those red states don’t make anything any more (that stopped about a generation ago), the food production is mainly pork-barrel subsidies from not very good governments and almost all the oil comes from off shore (“drill, baby, drill” is probably the stupidest comment of the whole election — come on down, Rudy, maybe the worst mayor of the whole election). I feel very sorry for thoughtful Americans — the Empire is definitely collapsing and McPain are going to make it collapse even sooner.

  14. I live in the blue state of Michigan and we still make cars but not so many any more. And that is due entirely to the auto executives burying their heads in the sand for the past thirty years. On the positive side for us is our governor who is bringing many new industries to Michigan – technological firms, the film industry, etc. That would be a blue state way of thinking whereas the red states just cry and keep electing the people who put them in trouble in the first place.

    I don’t think it is too terrible if our empire collapses a bit. The real terror is McCain’s threats of eternal war and the religious zealots desire to put us all to the sword. If you doubt those things you need to live here. They are very real.

  15. To be honest I don’t know much about what the Red states actually contribute economically. I just assume it’s something! Or wouldn’t there be a bigger secessionist movement? If I was living in New Hampshire I’d sooner be governed by a Canadian than Bush…

  16. KevinfromCanada said,

    Candy: Don’t be so depressed. America is still a wonderful country with wonderful people (okay, some are that good, but most are).

    Here is an author that I think you should consider, given your politics — Keith Maillard. He was a Vietnam War draft dodger and has lived in Canada ever since as a creative writing instructor in British Columbia. He has written a number of books based on Raysburg, Western Virginia (a fiction town — Wheeling is the model) that are set in the time of the sixties and that, I think, are exceptionally well done.

    His first novel, compressed from four by his agent’s demand, was re-released last year as four different volumes, under the overall title Difficulty at The Beginning. If you grew up in America in the 1960s, it is a very good tetralogy. My favorite Raysburg novels (and I love them all) are Gloria and Clarinet Polka. Gloria looks at the cheerleading-sorority culture of the 50s in the mid-West and is truly wonderful — Clarinet Polka takes the same era and looks at it from a very different point of view.

    See, America really is wonderful, even if we need a Belfast-based blogger to discover it. And if you think things are bad in Michigan, imagine what the last 30 years have looked like in Ireland. And then this quite strange guy, who likes to takes pictures of books on tables, starts a blog…….

    Life is very strange.

  17. Thanks Kevin, I shall look him up. If you like him you might like Tim O’Brien. He writes similar novels from the VietNam era. Some of them I had to read between my tears as they were set in Nam.

    I know America is wonderful I just don’t like what is being done to her by some very malignant people.

  18. KevinfromCanada said,

    John: Many thanks for pointing me to The Book of Illusions — it is definitely more accessible than most of Auster’s works and an excellent introduction (even if I have read several others).

    I referenced a TLS review of Man in the Dark on Trevor’s blog, particularly an observation that for Auster two-dimensionality is a quality, not a curse. Certainly, if we look at the book in the Trilogy where the subject’s walks in New York need to be mapped (reducing three dimensions to two) to understand them, it would seem to offer an insight into his work.

    So I was most intrigued by this observation on page 15 of my edition of The Book of Ilusions, a reference to Mann’s silent films: “These were obstacles, and they made viewing difficult for us, but they also relieved the images of the burden of representation. They stood between us and the film, and therefore we no longer had to pretend that we were looking at the real world. The flat screen was the world, and it existed in two dimensions. The third dimension was in our head.”

    I think that fairly summarizes what Auster does at his best. He creates and describes two dimensions in wonderful detail — and is very careful to allow the reader to create the third. That’s challenging work (beyond the pale of this year’s Booker jury, I would say) but one that is very rewarding if you are in the right frame of mind.

    Unlike his other books that I have read, in The Book of Illusions the plot does move from A to B to C (Auster’s normal progression is kind of A to F to R to B to M to G to Y to C). The third dimension element which is key to his work, in this book, lies inside Mann’s films and the intricate description that Auster supplies. It does make the book easier to read (or at least it did for me) because you at least have the plot to hang on to — which is not the case in most of his books.

    I do think that I can only appreciate Auster when I am in the right frame of mind. I’ve now read enough to know that I should expect to do a fair bit of work beyond just reading — and that’s just fine with me. Thanks again for the pointer to The Book of Illusions — for anyone who hasn’t read Auster, but is interested in him, it is the right place to start.

  19. [...] first two – The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night – and results since then have been mixed. His UK publishers Faber are trying to sell his most recent novel as a blockbuster of sorts [...]


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