Interrupt all you like. We’re involved in a complicated story here, and not everything is quite what it seems to be.
—Paul Auster, Travels in the Scriptorium
Over the past twenty-five years, Paul Auster has established one of the most distinctive niches in contemporary literature. As a Washington Post critic (me) once wrote:
Ever since City of Glass, the first volume of his New York Trilogy, Auster has perfected a limpid, confessional style, then used it to set disoriented heroes in a seemingly familiar world gradually suffused with mounting uneasiness, vague menace and possible hallucination. His plots—drawing on elements from suspense stories, existential récit and autobiography—keep readers turning the pages, but sometimes end by leaving them uncertain about what they’ve just been through.
In particular, as his many admirers know, his narrative voice is as hypnotic as that of the Ancient Mariner. Start one of his books and by page two you cannot choose but hear. While Paul Auster may not have a glittering eye, he still knows how to keep a reader spellbound.
Auster’s latest novel, Man in the Dark, is his fifteenth—counting Squeeze Play, his baseball mystery written as Paul Benjamin—and the first to appear since Travels in the Scriptorium (2007), which functioned in part as a kind of all-star retrospective. A literal chamber piece, the spare, Beckett-like Travels in the Scriptorium records one day in the life of an old man confined to what might be a cell or a room in a hospice. Suffering from amnesia, Mr. Blank is visited by several of his former “operatives,” who assist him with getting dressed (in all-white clothes), taking his pills, and filling out official papers.
From these strangely impersonal caregivers and advisers, he learns that some of his other one-time operatives have been demanding his death, in fact that he should be drawn and quartered. What has the old man done? And who are all these people? The confused Blank eventually sits down at a desk and studies a stack of photographs that he finds there. One by one, he tries without success to identify the faces of various men and women:
He looks at another ten pictures with the same disappointing results. An old man in a wheelchair, as thin and delicate as a sparrow, wearing the dark glasses of the blind. A grinning woman with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, wearing a 1920s flapper dress and a cloche hat. A frighteningly obese man with an immense hairless head and a cigar jutting from his mouth. Another young woman, this one Chinese, dressed in a dancer’s leotard. A dark-haired man with a waxed mustache, decked out in tails and a top hat. A young man sleeping on the grass in what looks like a public park. An older man, perhaps in his mid fifties, lying on a sofa with his legs propped up on a pile of pillows. A bearded, scraggly-looking homeless person sitting…
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