Man in the Dark
The novel Man in the Dark begins ominously: “I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle through another bout of insomnia, another white night in the great American wilderness.” That wilderness is Vermont, where August Brill has moved after a serious car accident has left him disabled. He resides with his divorced daughter, Miriam, and her college-aged daughter, Katya, who mourns a dead lover.
Brill is oppressed by a collection of personal sorrows, and to cope with those difficulties he seeks diversion through elaborate stories he concocts in his head. His most recent, and most compelling, concerns Owen Brick, a professional magician in Queens, New York, who works under the stage name of the Great Zavello. Brick is an otherwise unprepossessing figure, a quiet man, living a quiet life, married to a woman named Flora, who is expecting his first child and who frets over his humble means.
Inexplicably, though, he awakens suddenly to find himself in a deep hole, of which he has no memory of entering and no means of escape. When he is finally extricated, his commanding officer informs Brick that he is fighting in a civil war in America and that he has been chosen to assassinate the one man responsible for the conflict, “because he owns the war. He invented it, and everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head. Eliminate the head, and the war stops. It’s that simple.”
Brick seeks to avoid this responsibility, but after each attempt to escape or elude his superiors, he is beaten or dragged back into the conflict. When Brick protests that he does not recognize this war or this version of the United States, one that never endured 9/11 or the Iraq conflict, he is informed that he lives in different, parallel worlds, a condition postulated by a sixteenth century Italian philosopher who reasoned that because of God’s infinitude there exists an infinite number of worlds.
Brick is allowed to return briefly to his former life, where he resumes his quotidian existence but also begins researching the writings of his putative victim, who is now revealed to be Brill himself. Brick is soon visited by his tormentors, as the two worlds collide, and he has a brief affair with a woman from his past who has been sent to persuade him to accept his mission. When he refuses yet again to participate in murder, he is eliminated.
At this point, a restless Katya visits her grandfather and insists he describe his marriage and explain why he once divorced his wife and then lived with her once again after leaving his second wife. During their late night colloquy, the reader also learns about Katya’s grief and the guilt she feels over the murder of her boyfriend.
Paul Auster has a reputation for being one of American letters’ premier metafictionists, a title that has led to criticism in some quarters and to praise in others. European readers have especially appreciated Auster’s fictional experiments as evidenced by granting him the prestigious Prix Médicis Etranger and the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature. Man in the Dark is in many ways a continuation of the self-reflexiveness established in the novels, published in 1985 and 1986, included in Auster’s New York Trilogy and extending over his next ten novels.
This novel is located squarely in the creative consciousness of a writer, in this case a former book reviewer and critic. Unlike other writers, though, Brill does not create because of a vacancy he seeks to fill but rather from the press of heart-scalding losses that demand his attention. In short, Brill creates to divert or escape. Whereas metafictions typically revolve around the story of someone creating the story itselfits methods, its means, its shortcomings, its false startsthe narrative, though sometimes convoluted, remains focused on the story of the story.
Man in the Dark is similar, but with a significant difference. It presents an intricate nest of stories that parallel and compete with one...
(The entire section is 1,754 words.)