Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 160 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Paul Auster is one of those authors you either love or hate. He has a very dedicated cult following, but I have never been a member of that club.
The first Auster I read was Oracle Night, charmed in part by the coverline which claimed that “If you have never read Auster before . . . this is the place to start”. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I struggled with the cold detached prose style. And I simply didn’t “get” the storyline. And yet, months later, I was still thinking about the story and the characters. There was something there that had wormed its way into my brain and would pop into my consciousness when I least expected it. I began to worry that I had written off Auster before giving him a proper chance.
And so that is how I came to read what is probably his most famous novel — or series of novels — New York Trilogy. And this time, kind of knowing what to expect, I fell in love with Auster’s style and his thematic exploration of stories within stories and of the loneliness of writing and the concept of parallel lives and the blurring of fiction and reality. I loved the book so much I couldn’t bring myself to read anything else by him, although I often pick up his novels in book stores, walk around with them under my arm for a bit and then, chicken that I am, return them to the shelves and opt for something that little bit safer.
Fast forward a couple of years and when I discovered there was a new Auster about to hit the shelves I asked Faber and Faber if they’d be kind enough to send me a review copy, and they very kindly obliged.
Man in the Dark is typical Auster fare. It contains stories within stories within stories, and it plays with the concept that people can inhabit more than one world. It also explores memory, and the differences, if any, between the real and imagined.
It is told through the eyes of August Brill, a 72-year-old invalid, who dreams up stories in his head as a way of overcoming his insomnia. One of these stories is about a young man who awakens in a parallel universe in which September 11 did not happen. The America he finds himself in is not the calm, peaceful nation one would expect but a country at war with itself resulting from the secession of New York and a host of other states unhappy with the 2000 election result that put George W. Bush in power.
It’s a horrifying glimpse of another world that might have been. It reads like something that Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King might have colluded on. It’s dark, menacing and incredibly realistic.
But this is but one narrative thread of Man in the Dark. There is another in which the grieving August Brill recounts his marriage and long life with his now dead but much-loved Sonia to his granddaughter, Katya, who also suffers from insomnia. Katya, too, is grieving for the loss of her boyfriend, Titus, who was murdered in Iraq, and she stalls her grief by watching world movies with her grandfather all day long.
Later, the story of Titus’s untimely death, is also spelled out. So what results is a novel composed of many different stories that share common themes including love, loss, loneliness, fear and war.
Man in the Dark is an immensely readable book that moves along at a fast pace, so fast that I was able to read it in one sitting. There’s little clutter, but there’s a lot of stuff going on, too much, probably, to absorb in one reading. Whether the diehard fans will like it as much as me remains to be seen, but I thought it was an enjoyable, affecting and thought-provoking read, one that I am sure will linger in my mind for a long time to come. Now, if only I was brave enough to explore more of his back catalogue.