Man in the Dark
|Faber & Faber|
Other Paul Auster Reviews- The Invention of Solitude - In The Country of Last Things - Moon Palace - Auggie Wren's Christmas Story - The Art of Hunger - Mr. Vertigo - Timbuktu - The Book of Illusions - Oracle Night - Invisible
“Betty died of a broken heart. Some people laugh when they hear that phrase, but that's because they don't know anything about the world. People die of broken hearts. It happens every day, and it will go on happening to the end of time."
Continuing on my rapid exploration of Paul Auster's bibliography, I came to this curious, thoughtful and sometimes bewitching novella, taking a premise featuring an amalgamation of some of Auster's most prevalent ideas from both his earlier and later authorship styles. Weaving in a series of short, tangential stories of varying realism into the framework of one dominating main narrative, Auster was attempting the potentially paradoxical (alliterative mood) goal of fitting a meaningful, multi-layered series of reflective stories into the very limited space of a 180-page (in my Faber & Faber paperback edition) novella. Featuring the strong post-modern styles of Auster's ground-breaking and edgy earlier fiction- like obviously The New York Trilogy, which I think I must have mentioned in every Auster review I've written on this blog and have to re-read one day- mixed in with the more grounded, contemplative character-study-based, magical realism-tinged fiction of his latter days, Man in the Dark is far from perfect, but overall is a great story containing a nice mixture of drama, suspense, and even a bit of action.
The main plot, from which the narrating lead character inter-weaves a series of other stories, is an intense, realistic human interest drama stylistically most comparable to Auster's later fiction, such as Invisible or Sunset Park. Lead character August Brill is an elderly writer living with both his daughter and granddaughter, all three of them grieving over separate losses that are explored further towards the end of the book. As the unwavering framework of the whole book, grief and the search to overcome it permeates every page, as Auster presents it with the utmost seriousness. So seriously, in fact, that when it came towards the very end, where Brill and his granddaughter face-up to the rather horrific death of her fiance, things had become so serious and straightforward that I started to find it actually a bit silly, which I suppose isn't a great recommendation. Thankfully things are kept from being bogged down in a potential mire of seriousness by the other stories that Brill tells with his own, one in particular.
|Auster doesn't do colour.|
August Brill, the narrator, changes from the past to the present tense to narrate a story he's composing in his head, a story much different in tone and style from the 'real' main story about his family. In this story a man named Brick goes to bed next to his wife one night and then wakes up in the morning to find himself stuck down in a hole, in the middle of nowhere, in a parallel universe. He soon learns that, in this world, the US is embroiled in a bloody, modern civil war, and that he specifically has been chosen to cross worlds and act as an assassin, one who could end the fighting with a single bullet. I'm refrain from giving many details, since half the pleasure of this side-story is the thrilling suspense- for the first time in a while, possibly since In The Country of Last Things, Auster embraces more contemporary popular storytelling techniques and genres, and it's a lot of fun. I don't think I'd want him to switch to this kind of thing more often, but I do think that he was perhaps making a conscientious effort to catch the eye of new readers, to lure them into his web of postmodernism as he balances the stories of Brick and August Brill.
I have to admit that it disappointed me to discover that Brick's story ends rather abruptly, mid-way through Man in the Dark, since it was very entertaining, but the truth is that Auster's key concern was always with the realistic human drama of his center story; August Brill's grieving widower-hood, and his efforts to connect with his daughter and granddaughter, so the three of them can together overcome the tragic losses they've suffered. Brill ruminates on other short stories and memories, with the cumulative effect all relating to the whole. Auster packs quite a lot into a small book, keeping things constantly fast-paced; something that also might appeal to newbies. The same quickness and short length of the book is in some ways a hindrance to the overall story, since I don't think it allows Auster the space he needs to create enough of an emotional impact; especially in regards to the revelations as to how Brill's granddaughter's fiance was killed, something that was meant to shock and move the reader, but left me feeling somewhat unmoved through its over-the-top nature. Very topical, though.
In conclusion then, Man in the Dark is a very enjoyable, but rather flawed novella that thankfully overcomes its flaws to stand as a notable achievement. Though far from Auster's best work from a critical standpoint, the suspenseful nature and quick pacing make it a very easy read with far more crossover appeal than Auster's typical novels. Cautiously recommended as probably a good introductory novel, with a nice blend of the author's preferred styles from across the years.