Paul Auster, Man in the dark, Faber : 2008. RRP: $29.95
After finishing my favourite author’s latest novel, I’m not sure what I think of it. It’s a slim novel of insomnia as seventy-two year old August Brill reports two of his strategies of dealing with his failure to fall asleep. Brill is living in a house of three generations of mourning, having recently lost his wife, while his daughter Miriam has been abandoned by her husband and the boyfriend of his grand-daughter, Katya has been killed in Iraq.
Brill’s first strategy is to tell the story of Owen Brick, a man summoned from our world to fight a war in an alternate world where the north-eastern states do not accept George W. Bush’s victory in the 2000 election. There was no 9/11 in this world and there is no war in Iraq, but there is instead a second civil war. The nightmarish war-torn America is perhaps a self-parodying indictment against Brill (and Auster) and all the other progressives who are certain that everything would have turned out better if only Bush hadn’t been president.
The story arc of Owen Brick is an engrossing one. Piece by piece he comes to understand more of the alternate world as he tries to escape his mission to assassinate the author of the war : August Brill. These sections are reminiscent of Auster’s lyrical post-apocalypse, In the country of last things. But in an unsatisfying move, Brill extinguishes the story quite suddenly, before Brick has a chance to reach Brill’s own home and confront him.
It’s this sense of a half-finished narrative within the novel that leads me to think Man in the dark is most comparable with Auster’s 2004 novel Oracle night, where a similar thing happens. Both seem deliberately unsatisfying.
Brill’s second strategy is to tell Katya (who can’t sleep either) the story of his marriage. It is a fascinating story, with obtuse parallels to Owen Brick’s story. Brill can now bring the wisdom of seventy-two years to analyse the way he lived as a younger man and the painful mistakes he made:
I’ve thought about this for years, and the only half-reasonable explanation I’ve ever come up with is that there’s something wrong with me, a flaw in the mechanism, a damaged part gumming up the works. I’m not talking about moral weakness. I’m talking about my mind, my mental makeup. I’m somewhat better now, I think, the problem seemed to diminish as I grew older, but back then, at thirty-five, thirty-eight, forty, I walked around with a feeling that my life had never truly belonged to me, that I had never truly inhabited myself, that I had never been real. And because I wasn’t real, I didn’t understand the effect I had on others, the damage I could cause, the hurt I could inflict on the people who loved me. (153)
Brill’s story manages to put Katya to sleep, leaving him to reflect in the last few pages of the novel on the horror of Katya’s boyfriend’s death. Perhaps it’s the shocking horror of the details of this that are actually the animating force behind the rest of the novel and its much slower horrors.
The novel finishes with Brill telling Miriam that the poet she is writing about, Rose Hawthorne, had one (and only one) good line: As the weird world rolls on.
If it sounds like it doesn’t all hang together, that’s because it doesn’t. In this novel Auster presents life as a bundle of narratives, some true, some imagined, some complete, some incomplete and all of them held together by the rather fragile and diverse unity of a person’s mind. Beyond this, I don’t get it. But neither could I put it down.