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Spellbound

What he liked about these books was their sense of plenitude and economy. In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so—which amounts to the same thing. The world of the book comes to life, seething with possibilities, with secrets and contradictions. Since everything seen or said, even the slightest, most trivial thing, can bear a connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked. Everything becomes essence; the center of the book shifts with each event that propels it forward. The center, then, is everywhere, and no circumference can be drawn until the book has come to an end.

Given this model, it is little wonder that Auster values absolute clarity and precision, and that his sentences eschew all obvious flash: nothing can be allowed to get in the way of the story. Indeed, much of Auster’s dramatis personae is made up of character actors playing various stock eccentrics and oddballs, while his male protagonists usually resemble one another, being clones of Paul Auster. No matter. Those stories, set against the western desert, or on the mean streets of New York, or during the Depression or World War II, or in various science fictional other Americas, are irresistible.

Till recently, few innovative, literary novelists could rival Auster in his gusto for reframing tales of mystery, fantasy, and adventure. Auster repeatedly uses these genres to illuminate, often with great poignancy, life’s fundamental relationships: parents and children (especially fathers and sons), married couples, mentors and disciples, artists and their work, even owners and their pets. All these affiliations are generally placed under severe strain—there are secrets between friends, suspected or actual infidelities, eruptions of street violence into ordinary life, distressing revelations. In Moon Palace the likable young hero inadvertently causes the deaths of his grandfather, father, and child. More recently, Auster’s books—certainly the last half-dozen—have focused regularly on elderly, debilitated men with literary or intellectual vocations, as though their author were preemptively working through his own later years (Auster is now in his early sixties).

Some of Auster’s tics or techniques—the incestuous literary connections, the skewed autobiography, the ambiguous blurring of fact and fiction, the pervasive fatefulness—might sink any ordinary novel from sheer portentousness. And portentousness, as well as sentimentality, has been a criticism regularly leveled at his work. At its best, his tone is unruffled, meditative, intelligent, yet sometimes it does grow gravely august, both orotund and oracular. His characters are all too often the playthings of invisible forces; and the most trivial action—answering a telephone, buying a blue notebook—can bring about the most improbable and dire consequences. What may look like chance is usually kismet, and to Auster New York really is Baghdad on the Hudson, an Arabian Nights world of omens, shifting identities, unexpected windfalls, improbable meetings, wildly good and bad luck, and all those sudden peripeteias that seem more the stuff of melodrama than of modern fiction.

I sometimes think of Paul Auster as the godchild of the legendary New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell: introspective and wistful by nature, both are drawn to society’s more charismatic pariahs, bohemians, and misfits, and feel at home in the odd corners of metropolitan life. And both suggest that Americans are as lonely as the men and women glimpsed in the paintings of Edward Hopper.

2.

Man in the Dark focuses on the seventy-two-year-old retired book critic August Brill and the action, such as it is, takes place in his bedroom over the course of one night. (Note that Travels in the Scriptorium describes a single day in the life of Mr. Blank, also confined to a single room.) The first paragraph presents the three main characters and the mystery that drives the action:

I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle through another bout of insomnia, another white night in the great American wilderness. Upstairs, my daughter and granddaughter are asleep in their bedrooms, each one alone as well, the forty-seven-year-old Miriam, my only child, who has slept alone for the past five years, and the twenty-three-year-old Katya, Miriam’s only child, who used to sleep with a young man named Titus Small, but Titus is dead now, and Katya sleeps alone with her broken heart.

Brill goes on to say that during his bouts with insomnia “I lie in bed and tell myself stories.” These stories, he points out, “might not add up to much, but as long as I’m inside them, they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget.” What, we wonder, are these undisclosed things that Brill doesn’t want to think about? What happened, we wonder again, to Titus Small? At which point, the novel quite suddenly segues into Brill’s most recent story.

Owen Brick, who works as a children’s magician in New York, awakes from uneasy sleep to find himself dressed as a soldier and trapped in a deep hole. He is eventually helped out by a Sergeant Tobak, who persists in calling him “Corporal.” All this is inexplicable to Brick, until he eventually realizes that he has been transported to an alternate universe, to an America that is now undergoing bloody civil war. In this world neither September 11 nor the invasion of Iraq has occurred. Instead, history took a different path in 2000, just after the disputed election of George W. Bush. Brick gradually picks up bits and pieces of what happened:

The election of 2000…just after the Supreme Court decision…protests…riots in major cities…a movement to abolish the Electoral College…defeat of the bill in Congress…a new movement…led by the major and borough presidents of New York City…secession…passed by the state legislature in 2003…Federal troops attack…Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester…New York City bombed, eighty thousand dead…but the movement grows….

While under constant attack from “the Federals,” the various Independent States of America promulgate their own commonsensical political and social agenda:

Foreign policy: no meddling anywhere…. Domestic policy: universal health insurance, no more oil, no more cars or planes, a fourfold increase in teachers’ salaries (to attract the brightest students to the profession), strict gun control, free education and job training for the poor.

Alas, all this is “in the realm of fantasy for the moment, a dream of the future, since the war drags on, and the state of emergency is still in force.”

The country has, in fact, become a battle zone, where martial law is in effect, sudden death is common, amenities are few, and a single egg costs $5. And there’s no end in sight, unless… Unless what? Brick thus discovers why he’s been transported to this alternate America: he has been chosen to assassinate the man responsible for the civil war and so put a stop to the increasingly bloody conflict. At this point the confused Brick learns what all science fiction readers know:

There’s no single reality, Corporal. There are many realities. There’s no single world. There are many worlds, and they all run parallel to one another, worlds and anti-worlds, worlds and shadow-worlds, and each world is dreamed or imagined or written by someone in another world. Each world is the creation of a mind.

The creator of this riven, war-torn America is at first thought to be named Blake, then Blank (a glance back to the writer-protagonist of Travels in the Scriptorium), but is actually, of course, Brill. It appears—though the logic here seems flawed—that Brill didn’t invent this entire world, “he only invented the war. And he invented you, Brick. Don’t you understand that? This is your story, not ours. The old man invented you in order to kill him.”

Naturally, our children’s magician—a quiet, law-abiding man, recently married—has no intention of killing anybody. And yet if he murders Brill, he will bring peace to this blasted America; if he doesn’t, the war will go on, with more and more casualties. What does the life of one man matter in balance against the lives of thousands, perhaps millions?

This ethical question recalls a famous short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Here it turns out that a wonderful, cultivated utopian world can continue to exist, bringing happiness and satisfaction to all its citizens, so long as, deep in an underground dungeon, a small child is constantly tortured. Most people accept this devil’s bargain, but as the title says, not all.

In due course, Brick tries to trick his way out of his ethical dilemma, but even after escaping back to his own time, our time, he finds himself pursued by agents from this other America. His wife Flora is threatened. What should he do, what can he do? Is he really a soldier with a mission? Must be become an assassin, a terrorist? He is racked by uncertainty. What’s more, he is also sexually tempted by a beautiful woman from his past—but is she an ally, a double agent, or something else?

Auster has imagined ravaged apocalyptic worlds before—chiefly in the bleak In the Country of Last Things, where the grotesque savagery recalls movies like Escape from New York and The Road Warrior —but here his contemporary political inflection is particularly pronounced. As Brick says, “One nightmare replaces another.” Scenes in this bombed-out America are clearly meant to recall newsreels of Iraq, to bring home the visceral horror and moral chaos of relentless, total war.

Unable to sleep one night, Brick wanders down to the kitchen of a house where he has been staying. His are just “the idle thoughts of an insomniac, searching the cupboards for a clean glass and a bottle of scotch.” His mind is nothing but one sleepy notion mutating into the next, until Auster writes:

So it goes with all of us, young and old, rich and poor, and then an unexpected event comes crashing down on us to jolt us out of our torpor.

Brick hears the low-flying planes in the distance, then the noise of a helicopter engine, and an instant after that, the keening blast of an explosion. The windows in the kitchen shatter to bits, the floor shakes under his bare feet and then begins to tilt, as if the entire foundation of the house were shifting position, and when Brick runs into the front hall to mount the stairs to check on Virginia, he is met by large, writhing spears of flame. Wooden shards and slate roof tiles are falling down from above. Brick turns his eyes upward, and after several seconds of confusion he understands that he is looking at the night sky through clouds of billowing smoke. The top half of the house is gone….

He runs outside onto the lawn, and all around him howling neighbors are pouring from their houses into the night. A contingent of Federal troops has massed in the middle of the street, fifty or sixty helmeted men, all of them armed with machine guns. Brick raises his hands in a gesture of surrender….

Since so much of Man in the Dark is initially occupied with Brick’s adventures, it is easy enough to take this for the main story, except that Auster occasionally interrupts the narrative to remind us of the old book reviewer and the two women asleep upstairs. Brill tells us that during the day he and his granddaughter watch and discuss movies, supposedly to pass the time but largely to help Katya work through her grieving. Brill notes that in the films they rent—international masterpieces such as Grand Illusion, The Bicycle Thief, The World of Apu, and Tokyo Story —the “women are the ones who carry the world. They take care of the real business while their hapless men stumble around making a hash of things.”

The men in this novel are generally dreamers, romantics, or fanatics, seekers after impossible paradises. But Auster’s women are fundamentally sensible, down to earth (and earthy), wholly realistic, and none more so than imaginary Brick’s imaginary wife Flora. She is

a woman…who knows there is only this world and that numbing routines and brief squabbles and financial worries are an essential part of it, that in spite of the aches and boredoms and disappointments, living in this world is the closest we will ever come to seeing paradise.

Her philosophy of life is one of moderation, of quiet human pleasures:

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.

Flora’s speeches, like other aspects of Man in the Dark, will clearly divide readers: Are they wise words, simply spoken? Or are they salt-of-the-earth platitudes? A hard call. To my ear, they sound a little hackneyed, just as the novel as a whole strikes me as generally baggy in its design, while overly contrived in its ending. Ethical dilemmas are raised but not resolved—which may be the right aesthetic decision—while renewal is signaled by the expectation of a hearty farmer’s breakfast, which sounds both sensible and corny. Yet even though these caveats obviously matter on some level, on another, they don’t: Man in the Dark is an undoubted pleasure to read. Auster really does possess the wand of the enchanter.

In the middle of the night, Katya—unable to sleep—asks her grandfather to confess the full story of his marriage to her grandmother Sonia. Brill outlines a magical courtship and an idyllic wedded life, destroyed by his own romantic restlessness and infidelity. He also describes the joy accompanying the birth of his daughter Miriam, then the surprising consequences resulting from the birth of Katya herself, and, finally, the young woman’s relationship with the would-be writer Titus Small. Only in the novel’s final pages do we learn his dreadful fate.

3.

Brill opens Man in the Dark by writing “I lie in bed and tell myself stories” and he repeats this sentence near the book’s close. To Paul Auster this is the main consolation available to our human condition: we live in darkness, in fear, ignorance, moral perplexity. To escape from our lives and travails, to salve our troubled souls, to save ourselves from perishing of the truth (Nietzsche), as a way of correcting reality (Freud), or simply because “humankind cannot stand very much reality” (Eliot), we tell ourselves stories, hoping to make it through the night that surrounds us into another morning.

This escape into story—a central trope of Man in the Dark —has recurred throughout Auster’s fiction:

I can’t stop. The book is the only thing that keeps me going. It prevents me from thinking about myself and getting sucked up into my own life. If I ever stopped working on it, I’d be lost. I don’t think I’d make it through another day.
In the Country of Last Things

She has the story, and when a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear. For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.
The Brooklyn Follies

Mr. Blank is one of us now…. Mr. Blank is old and enfeebled, but as long as he remains in the room with the shuttered window and the locked door, he can never die, never disappear, never be anything but the words I am writing on this page.
Travels in the Scriptorium

Auster once said in an interview:

Over the years, I’ve been intensely interested in the artificiality of books…. I mean, who’s kidding whom, after all. We know when we open up a book of fiction that we’re reading something that is imaginary, and I’ve always been interested in exploiting that fact, using it, making it part of the work itself.

Certainly Auster can be artificial, even to the point of cuteness or camp. In Man in the Dark, characters are named Blake, Black, Bloch, Blank, Blunt, Brand, Brandt, Blaine, Brick, and Brill. Not to overlook Bush. Who’s kidding whom? Auster, like a good comedian, never cracks even the hint of a knowing smile. But in light of such obvious contrivance, there’s never any doubt that we’re inside a story, a verbal contraption, art.

Auster’s novels repeatedly explore that threshold between the Primary World of life and what J.R.R. Tolkien called the Secondary World of art; they lead us into that liminal realm where rich fantasy displaces the dry quotidian. “I am not alone,” Auster has written, “in my belief that the more we understand of the world, the more elusive and confounding the world becomes.” Just look at the eerie titles of his books: City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room, In the Country of Last Things, Moon Palace, The Music of Chance, Leviathan, Mr. Vertigo, Timbuktu, The Book of Illusions, Oracle Nights, The Brooklyn Follies, Travels in the Scriptorium, Man in the Dark. Each of these hints at something romantic or supranatural, suggests that dreams may turn out to be real and reality merely a dream. Or a nightmare.

Ultimately, Auster reminds us that each of us looks at existence through story-colored lenses. The world we inhabit is literally shaped by Story. We all have our “life stories,” and these govern how we see ourselves and others, how we interpret events and memories and expectations. When our saviors and teachers speak to us about the greatest truths, whether of religion or philosophy, they always speak to us in parables. When artists, or ordinary people, talk about what truly matters, they start and end by telling stories, wonderful, amazing stories—like those in the works of Paul Auster.

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