MAN IN THE DARK
By Paul Auster
The badness of any book is relative to its pedigree. A lousy
first collection of short stories may be quickly forgotten (assuming it is even
noticed in the first place), but when expectations are high the ensuing
disappointment can lead to feelings of betrayal and angry disbelief. Almost
twenty years ago Harold Bloom thought Vineland so unworthy of Thomas
Pynchon he publicly questioned whether the reclusive author had actually written
it. More recently some readers may have felt the same sense of shock and dismay
after reading Ian McEwan's On
Chesil Beach, or anything by Don DeLillo post-Underworld.
What, we want to ask as we gaze upon these fallen idols, happened?
American author Paul Auster has written several very good books.
Man in the Dark is not one of them. It begins in the familiar Auster
mode, with the narrator declaring "I am alone in the dark, turning the
world around in my head." For an Auster character the world, which is also
a text, is always inside the head, a skull which is also a locked room. And so
on. In the present case the head belongs to August Brill, an elderly literary
critic living in his daughter’s house along with his granddaughter while
recovering from an auto accident. As he lies in bed he imagines a story that
turns into a parallel narrative about an alternative United States in the throes
of a civil war (fallout from a wave of states seceding from the union after the
2000 election). The protagonist of that story is given a mission to kill one
August Brill, the person responsible for imagining this situation in the first
This is the world of metafiction, of boxes within boxes and
people dreaming within dreams, with stories that go in circles and swallow their
own tails. The effect is less indebted to continental models than the fantasies
of Philip K. Dick, with all of their paranoia about being trapped in the
narrative fashionings of another mind. Even the names - Owen Brick, Lou Frisk,
Titus Small - sound like a casting call from Dickworld. But while borrowing many
of Dick's themes, as well as the appalling carelessness of his style, Man in
the Dark has none of the master’s energy and imagination.
And the parallel-world subplot is the best part. The rest of the
book has Brill's granddaughter joining him in bed to listen to him tell the
banal story of how he met her grandmother. Why Auster presents this as a
conversation is hard to understand, since the stilted, unbelievable form the
dialogue takes makes it sound like Brill is still talking to himself. And though
he tells his granddaughter he won’t bore her with "tawdry
incidentals" he puts her to sleep anyway with the same. The unhappy reader
is left with stuff like a ghastly comic scene that climaxes with one woman
peeing herself and another farting in merriment. Nor are we excused other tawdry
incidentals like a description of Brill getting rid of a mouthful of sputum
without a handkerchief ("I swallow hard and let the goo slide down my
throat”) or his late-night narrative potty breaks ("Suddenly, an urgent
need to empty my bladder . . .").
Presumably there is some kind of political
message to all of this, with the subplot
about the second American civil war and the murder of the granddaughter's
boyfriend in Iraq, but it is left undeveloped. The writing is slack and clichéd
throughout. And, fatally, without intellectual interest. How could an author as
cerebral as Auster find profundity in the keynote line "the weird world
rolls on"? And yet apparently he did.
Unless it wasn’t Auster at all. Perhaps one of his doppelgangers
from a previous metafiction was responsible. Or maybe it's a message in a bottle
from a shadow- or anti-world "dreamed or imagined or written by someone in
another world." One where a celebrated author, we'll call him "Paul
Auster," would never allow himself to write a book this bad.
Review first published in the Toronto Star
September 28, 2008.