In The Book of Illusions, David Zimmer has lost his wife and two sons in a tragic car crash. Left wealthy by the insurance settlement, the grieving Zimmer quits his job as an English professor at a Vermont college and becomes a reclusive alcoholic. Flipping through television channels one night, Zimmer happens upon a film clip of the silent comedian Hector Mann, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1929. Suddenly, Zimmer’s life has purpose again, as he becomes enthralled by Mann’s work and writes a book about him. Some time later, after the book has been published, Zimmer receives a letter from someone in New Mexico claiming to be Mann’s wife. The woman tells Zimmer that Hector has read his book and would like to meet him. Zimmer is obviously confused, presuming that Mann has long been dead, and he writes the letter off as a fraud. A visit from an unusual and remarkable woman named Alma Grund, however, changes Zimmer’s mind.
The Book of Illusions takes Auster’s relationship with risk and chance to a new and exciting level, as Auster examines, in great depth, the life of a vanished man. We learn where Hector Mann went, what he did, and why he remains in hiding. Like François-René de Chateaubriand in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe (1849-1850; memoirs of a dead man), which Zimmer translates, Mann seemingly communicates from a world beyond. He meditates on life, art, and love, as does Zimmer himself, and this sets the uniformity of mood pervading the novel. Like Hawthorne, whose “The Birthmark” is alluded to by Alma, Auster has a spirit of introspective memory and moral consciousness. The Book of Illusions is, in a way, a high-wire act, a reflection on the thin line between madness and sanity, and, arguably, the finest achievement of Auster’s career.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 290 (September, 2002): 154.
Booklist 98 (January 1-January 15, 2002): 1644.
Esquire 138 (September, 2002): 78.
Library Journal 127 (August, 2002): 138.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 8, 2002, p. 3.
The New York Times, October 14, 2002, p. E1.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (September 1, 2002): 6.
The New Yorker 78 (September 23, 2002): 92.
Publishers Weekly 249 (August 26, 2002): 42.
USA Today, September 17, 2002, p. D5.
The Washington Post Book World, September 8, 2002, p. 10.