The Book of Illusions is Paul Auster’s tenth novel and thirty-fifth book overall. Although long praised as a decidedly literary writer, Auster has more recently achieved a wider audience. His last novel, Timbuktu(1999), narrated by an abandoned dog, became a best-seller, and the anthology I Thought My Father Was God, and Other Stories from NPR’s National Story Project (2001) has been widely praised, understandably so given the American public’s hunger for “true stories” from oral histories to so-called reality television. Auster’s fiction, however, deals not with the authentically true but with the patently artificial. The Book of Illusions represents a return to Auster’s roots in his particular brand of existential metafiction, but with a difference, one that the pathos of the earlier canine story helps explain.
The narrator-protagonist of The Book of Illusions is David Zimmer, who first appeared in Auster’s 1989 novel Moon Palace. Then Zimmer was a brilliant graduate student at Columbia University, as well as (for a time) roommate, helper, foil, and alter ego of that novel’s main character, the passive quester Marco Stanley Fogg. Now Zimmer is a professor of comparative literature at the fictitious Hampton College in Vermont, whose life changes drastically on June 7, 1985. The deaths of his wife, Helen, and two young sons, Todd and Marco, in a plane crash leave him devastated, spending much of his time alone, in an alcoholic haze, some of the time dressed in his wife’s clothes in an effort to bring her back from the dead. Even as he slowly adjusts to his new life of loss, he still finds it difficult to “know who I was.” At this point, chance once again intervenes. Watching a television documentary on silent film comedy, Zimmer sees a clip from an old Hector Mann film (an actor Zimmer had never heard of before) and laughs for the first time since the crash. Suddenly, the scholarly Zimmer, who had previously held film in low regard, becomes intensely, even obsessively interested in Mann’s films, which become the focus of Zimmer’s recently meaningless life. Zimmer’s pursuit of Mann (one of Auster’s most fascinating and typically elusive characters) largely focuses on the actor’s screen persona: a man “not out of step with the world so much as a victim of circumstances.”
Several mysteries complicate and facilitate, as well as focus, Zimmer’s research, which he finances with the settlement money from his wife and sons’ deaths. Hector Mann arrived late to silent film comedy—in the mid- 1920’s—and disappeared in 1929 at the height of his career, without a trace, and under mysterious circumstances, after making just twelve movies. The handful of newspaper articles that Zimmer locates offer conflicting accounts of Mann’s pre-Hollywood days. Nine of the twelve films only became available after 1981, anonymously sent to nine major film archives in Europe and the United States. In a rented flat in Brooklyn Heights (not far from Auster’s own Park Slope brownstone), Zimmer writes The Silent World of Hector Mann, a study of the films, not of the absent Mann, who is present only in his art. The book is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press “eleven years ago this past March” (that is, in 1988). Three weeks later, Zimmer, now back in Vermont, receives a letter from Frieda Spelling, who purports to be Mrs. Hector Mann. Intrigued but skeptical, Zimmer replies and soon receives an urgent invitation to visit Mann in New Mexico, to which he once again replies, asking for proof that his correspondent is who she claims to be.
Then there is silence, or nearly so, for in the meantime an old friend, Alex Kronenburg, contacts Zimmer to offer his condolences and invite Zimmer to participate in a Library of World Classics series financed by aluminum-siding tycoon Dexter Feinbaum (yet another of the archly allegorical names in Auster’s novel). On the basis of a brief remark Zimmer made while the two were graduate students, Kronenburg asks Zimmer to produce a fresh translation of François-René de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs d’outre-tombe (1849- 1850; Memoirs, 1902). Thus Zimmer has a new (Sartrean) project to keep him occupied—or would have, had he not come home one night to find Alma Grund waiting for him. Alma (“the feminine form of almus, meaning nourishing, bountiful,” as Zimmer pedantically notes) is the daughter of Charlie Grund, Hector Mann’s cameraman; she is also Frieda Spelling’s emissary, arrived (like some earthly Beatrice) to escort Zimmer to the Manns’s ranch in Tierra del Sueno, the land of dreams. Nothing in Auster’s deceptively straightforward, paratactic fiction is ever quite so simple, however. The purple stain on one side of Alma’s face, for example, links her to Georgina in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark” (1843), whose scientist husband Aylmer (not Alma or Almus) ends up killing her in an effort to perfect her.
During the plane ride from Boston to New...
(The entire section is 2068 words.)