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 place.

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.

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