The mind of Paul Auster goes blank at night. He lies down to sleep in his Brooklyn home after a long day with pen and legal pad, or bent over the same manual Olympia typewriter he’s used since the 1960s, tangling with characters and ideas that can inhabit his imagination for years at a time before finding a place within one of his novels. Six, seven days a week he does this, obsessing and writing and rewriting, but then it goes quiet, and he leaves it all behind, observing only silence and serenity in the dark.
“Writing a novel is a very slow process,” says Auster, 61, speaking from the Park Slope office he keeps just around the corner from his brownstone. “You can only work so many hours per day. Then your brain starts to sizzle and short-circuit. I believe in rest, and not thinking about it. The powers of the unconscious seem to work very well with novels.”
Auster’s new novel, Man in the Dark, is told through the character of August Brill, a retired literary critic with a shattered leg, who spends his days in a wheelchair and his nights alone, creating epic narratives to keep the horrors and regrets of his recent past far away. The bad thoughts are personal and global, with echoes from the distant catastrophe in Iraq, and as immediate as his grieving daughter and granddaughter.
Auster has come to be known as “the chance man,” an author preoccupied with the wild coincidences of life and accidental connections between people and events. Such connections were central to the celebrated New York Trilogy, his metaphysical reworking of the detective genre, and have factored into his nonfiction essays and autobiographical vignettes. Yet these ideas have never truly represented the full scope of his work. “It’s sometimes maddening,” admits Auster of this lingering reputation. Much more is at stake in Man in the Dark, a novel that is obliquely topical but is also among his most emotionally charged.
For the wounded Brill, inventing stories is not a vocation or even a hobby, but a necessity. His wife has died, his daughter’s husband gone to another woman, and his granddaughter’s lover murdered. Auster’s novel unfolds during one of his nights in the dark, as he imagines a contemporary America in which the attacks of September 11 never happened. Instead, “one nightmare replaces another,” and we have an unthinkable second American Civil War, this one ignited by the bungled, stolen election of 2000. It is perhaps the novel’s greatest leap of fantasy to suggest this country might have risen up after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered the presidency to George W. Bush, which is literally the opposite of how Americans did respond. There were no mass protests or general strikes. New York and California did not secede from the union (as they do in Brill’s fantasy). In the real world where Auster and the rest of us reside, the nation yawned and kept score on Hardball.
‘I know,” says Auster, genuine regret in his voice. He laughs. “I was apoplectic for at least a year afterwards. And I still haven’t recovered, so perhaps this imaginary Civil War is some kind of wish fulfillment on my part.”
The greater the fantasy, the better the distraction. So the bedridden fabulist Brill imagines a young magician taken from New York and drafted to perform an assassination to end “this other war, an imaginary war on home ground, America cracking apart, the noble experiment finally dead.” And he decides that this magician’s mission is to kill Brill himself, to silence the old man in the wheelchair who is creating this awful story of war, to end all of this pain.
Man in the Dark is not a political novel in the traditional sense, but the consequences of our ongoing national nightmare are everywhere. The first mention of Iraq appears on page eight, September 11 on page 31, Bush on page 51, the election of 2000 on page 62, and so on. But the book draws its greatest rage and horror from the personal tragedy suffered by Auster’s good friend, the Israeli author David Grossman, whose son was killed during the 2006 war with Lebanon — and just days before a ceasefire. The novel is dedicated to Grossman and his family, and “in memory of Uri,” who died the very week his father and Amos Oz urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to end the conflict.
“He was a 20-year-old boy whom I knew,” Auster says gravely. “It’s one of the most terrible things that has ever happened to any of my friends. I love David very much. I think he is an extraordinary writer, an extraordinary man and someone who has been battling for peace in Israel all his life, and for this to happen to him of all people seems the cruelest turn imaginable. I’ve been thinking about this ever since it happened. This really propelled me into the book.”
In Auster’s novel, that tragedy is reshaped into the story of Titus, the former lover of Brill’s granddaughter Tatya. After she ended the relationship, the heartbroken Titus went to Iraq to drive cargo trucks, only to be kidnapped and killed, his final moments captured on terrorist videotape. Tatya has now dropped out of film school and spends endless days distracting herself from her pain and guilt by watching classic movies with her grandfather. Scenes from these films (Grand Illusion, The Bicycle Thief and The World of Apu, among others) provide some startling moments of revelation, much like the tender conversation between Brill and Tatya later in the book, a lengthy dialogue informed by Auster’s relationship with his own daughter, Sophie Auster, an actress just turned 21.
These scenes amount to more layers and dreams within imagined stories embedded in the larger, tragic narrative of Auster’s novel. He is notoriously comfortable with alternative levels of consciousness. Meanwhile, Brill’s adult daughter is writing a biography of Rose Hawthorne, the daughter of Nathaniel, and herself a minor American poet whose line “the weird world rolls on” captures Brill’s attention and provides a recurring motif in Auster’s book.
As always with Auster, the power within Man in the Dark is also in how he tells it. Back in 1985’s City of Glass, he described the perfect detective story but could have been describing his own distinctive voice, where there is “nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. … Since everything seen or said, even the lightest, most trivial thing, can bear a connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked. … The center of the book shifts with each event that propels it forward.’”
This newest novel is perhaps less noir than some of Auster’s previous work, but the crisp narrative style remains the same: words and ideas stripped to their essence, as vivid and direct as a coroner’s report, elegantly written and weighted with feeling.
“The thing about style, it’s almost as impossible to control as your thumbprint,” Auster explains. “It is you, and I’ve always aspired to write books that are composed of as few words as possible. I like the idea of leaving space for the reader to inhabit, not telling everything, making every word count, every syllable count, and every sentence. It has nothing to do with detective fiction. It just has to do with a certain aesthetic.
“Ideally, what I would hope for is that when someone is reading my book, they would get so entrapped inside the story that they would forget that the medium of the story is words, and that the words become transparent.”
In Man in the Dark, words are not exactly transparent, but they do illuminate a weird world in which tragedy is too often the norm and known to all of us, and the only possible escape is to imagine something worse.
MAN IN THE DARK | By PAUL AUSTER | Henry Holt | 192 pages | $23 hardcover
Paul Auster will appear with author Michael Tolkin in a Writers Bloc event at Temple Emanuel, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, on Wednesday, September 17 at 7:30p.m. www.writersblocpresents.com.