The Book of Illusions Summary
by Paul Auster

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

After his wife and children are killed in a plane crash, college teacher David Zimmer sinks into alcohol-fueled despair. Then, watching television one afternoon, he happens to see a clip from a silent comedy that makes him laugh. It is the first time he has laughed since he was widowed, and, although he does not feel able to resume his former life, he becomes fascinated by the comedian who made him laugh.

The actor in question is Hector Mann, a Latin American (though his origins are murky) who was famous for his moustache and his white suit. Mann made just twelve short films, right at the end of the silent era, before disappearing in mysterious circumstances in December, 1928. By chance, the twelve films he made have just been donated to various film archives in America and Europe, and Zimmer sets out to see them all. The quest quickly turns into a book, the first full-length critical study of Mann’s work, which Zimmer publishes in 1988.

Within weeks of the book’s publication, Zimmer receives a letter implying that Hector Mann is still alive. At first, Zimmer dismisses the letter as some sort of hoax, but eventually he returns home one night to find a young woman, Alma, waiting for him. Zimmer is drunk, soaked from a heavy downpour, and shaken after a minor road accident, and he reacts badly when Alma tries to persuade him to come to New Mexico to meet Hector. At last, she pulls a gun on him, but Zimmer, convinced the gun is unloaded, takes it from her, points it at his own head, and pulls the trigger. Only then does he realize that the gun is fully loaded, but fortunately the safety catch is still on. This sobers him up, and Zimmer...

(The entire section is 1,064 words.)