Man in the Dark cloaks its intentions
Paul Auster does not write for the faint-hearted.
Auster’s stories and novels always have at least three levels of meaning for the reader to surmount, sometimes more.
There is always the story first, told in the elegantly clipped, brusque and erudite fashion that Auster employs. Then there is the metastory, which often uses the trick of magic realism: a story within the story that defies the laws of the universe. Finally, there is the overarching metaphor for the both, which comes in the form of a grand, world-stage theme. In some cases, Auster will indulge in several examples of all three in just one work.
I say indulge because it often seems like he really doesn’t care if the reader is following along successfully or not. That is the case with his latest novel Man in the Dark.
It is the story of 72-year-old, wheelchair-bound August Brill, a hollowed-out carcass of loss and grief who lives with his lonely, divorced daughter and his granddaughter, whose boyfriend has been murdered in Iraq.
The story is first about Brill, the loss of his wife and the house of pain that he and the women live in.
Then it’s about Brick, a soldier in a contemporary American civil war that proves to be a contrivance of Brill’s imagination. He makes up the story in his head to assuage his seething insomnia. Then it is about the Iraq war, as we discover the circumstances of the murder of his granddaughter Katya’s boyfriend.
Auster is no fan of the connected narrative. Sometimes he can pull off the scattering of story lines, and sometimes he can’t. The reader simply becomes irritated by what looks increasingly like a conceit rather than a device.
That’s what happens in Man in the Dark, although Auster telegraphs what he seems to be after on several occasions in the book. Brill, a retired, formerly celebrated book reviewer, is contemplating his lucky escape of never having to go to war. But he recalls seeing the Newark riots of 1967, and thinks to himself, “That was my war. Not a real war perhaps, but once you witness violence on that scale, it isn’t difficult to imagine something worse, and once your mind is capable of doing that the worst possibilities of the imagination are the country you live in. Just think it, and chances are it will happen.”
And that is an exact description of what does happen in Auster’s world as a writer: Think it and it will happen. But that does not always seem like enough justification for telling a story.
I must say, even though I believe Auster is being deliberately obfuscating in Man in the Dark, he has left clues for readers as to what’s really on his mind these days as a writer and a citizen.
For instance, his Op-Ed piece for The New York Times on April 23 of this year, published shortly before his book. In it that essay, titled “The Accidental Rebel,” he eloquently describes his “accidental” participation in the 1968 riots on the Columbia University campus, ostensibly over the Vietnam War, during which he was arrested.
He finishes the piece by writing, “I hesitate to draw any comparisons with the present—and therefore will not end this memory piece with the word ‘Iraq.’ I am 61 now, but my thinking has not changed much since that year of fire and blood, and as I sit alone in this room with a pen in my hand, I realize that I am still crazy now, perhaps crazier than ever.”
Forgive me, but didn’t he end up ending the piece with the word “Iraq,” anyway? Auster cannot get out of the way of his own, deepest intentions. And he should not, in his own writing.