The Book of Illusions Critical Overview
by Paul Auster

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Critical Overview

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

For a novel ostensibly about films, The Book of Illusions is remarkably bookish. Zimmer’s book about Mann sets the plot in motion. When contacted by Alma, Zimmer is at work on a new translation of François-René de Chateaubriand’s memoirs, from which he quotes extensively, and he discovers the same volume on Hector’s shelves. During Hector’s exile from Hollywood, he reads obsessively, and there are frequent references to other books throughout the novel. Alma is writing a biography of Hector. One of the late, unseen films is described as having no dialogue, only voice-over narration throughout, which is a very novelistic approach to film. The one late film of Hector’s that Zimmer is able to watch, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, is about a novelist working on a new story. In the film, Martin Frost’s most recent novel is called Travels in the Scriptorium, which is also the title of one of Hector Mann’s unseen films and, curiously, is a title that Paul Auster also appropriated for a later novel of his own.

Likewise, Zimmer’s narration is notable for how little visual detail he includes. Indeed, there are several passages where he comments on not noticing things. The one exception is Zimmer’s descriptions of films (of which there are several lengthy examples in the novel): These are full of visual detail, such as the twitch of Hector’s moustache, a sidelong glance, or the play of light in a scene.

The books and films quoted throughout the novel reflect the novel’s action. This reflexivity is made explicit in Zimmer’s account of Hector’s penultimate silent comedy: Made at a time when Hector’s producer was going bankrupt, cheating Hector out of money, and damaging Hector’s future prospects, the film presents Hector as a successful businessman whose partner gives him a potion to make him invisible so the partner can steal from the company. Though rarely as overt as this example, every quotation from a book or description of a film amplifies the characters or comments on the plot in some fashion. The characters are aware of this: Alma, who has a strawberry birthmark on her face, recalls reading a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which a chemist tries to remove the birthmark from his lover’s face only to kill her in the process.

The theme that runs through so many of these quoted passages involves death in one form or another. The memoirs of Chateaubriand, which clearly mean much to both Zimmer and Hector, are given the title Memoirs of a Dead Man in Zimmer’s translation, because Chateaubriand intended that they should not be published until after his death. This decision is echoed in Zimmer’s own story, since readers are told at the very end of the book that Zimmer has given instructions that his account should not be published until after his death. These books also parallel the films that Hector makes at his New Mexico home, since he makes them with the explicit understanding that they will never be shown to an outside audience and will be destroyed upon his death.

Both Hector and Zimmer see themselves as dead men. So great is Zimmer’s grief after the death of his wife that he comes close to killing himself on a number of occasions, most dramatically on the night he meets Alma, when he puts her gun to his head and pulls the trigger. This is not actually a suicide attempt, since Zimmer believes the gun is unloaded, but it does reflect how little his own life means to him. Again, there is an echo between Zimmer and Hector, since readers learn that, after fleeing Hollywood, Hector tried to kill himself on a number of occasions, including putting a gun to his head.

Other parallels run through the novel (Auster regularly uses coincidence in his work), as when Hector finds himself working for Brigid’s father, who does not recognize him and in truth knows nothing about him. It is only when Brigid’s sister falls in love with him that Hector decides he must move on. It is the parallels between David Zimmer...

(The entire section is 1,136 words.)