Book Review: Auster imagines a new civil war

Last Updated: Tue, Aug 26, 2008 12:15 hrs

Man in the Dark
By Paul Auster
Published by Henry Holt
Pages: 192
Price: $23

An old man lies alone in the dark each night, hobbled by an auto accident and haunted by death. To fill the sleepless hours, he thinks up a story about a man who wakes up into an alternate America–one where there was no September 11 and no Iraq War, but one where the controversial 2000 presidential election sparked a kind of blue-state/red-state civil war that has claimed millions of lives.

Paul Auster's latest novel toggles between these two tales–one ruminative, the other fantastic. Both relate to retired book critic August Brill, who is recuperating from a car wreck at his daughter's home in Vermont. Brill has lost his wife to cancer and is also disturbed by the horrific death of his granddaughter's former boyfriend. Brill and his granddaughter, who is also recovering at her mother's house, keep the awful thoughts at bay by watching great films on TV all day.

At night, Brill plots out the story of Owen Brick, a hapless magician who goes to bed one night with his wife in Queens and awakes in a hole in an America that is not the country he knows. George W Bush is president of the United States, or at least the ones that didn't break off from the Union. The Independent States of America have their own prime minister, but society has broken down with the conflict. There's no TV, few cars and a lot of misery.

Before he can figure out where he is, Brick is given a mission to assassinate the mysterious man responsible for imagining this awful state of affairs. Brick makes his way unsteadily through this brutal, weird world.

Auster hits many of his favoured themes here. Characters struggle to move on after pulverizing losses. Solace is found in art. There is a story in a story and the rules of reality seem bendable.

Like in a lot of Auster novels, readers can never be quite sure where Man in the Dark will go next. But be warned: This novel takes the reader to fewer places than some other Auster stories. Despite the detour into a ravaged America, this book is concerned less with politics and more with a man struggling to cope in "the black centre of the dead night."

Some quibbles. The ending seemed a bit off, maybe because it's an outcome a lot of other writers would have come up with. And while Man in the Dark is a short book, it could have been shorter. One example: it takes five pages for Brill to give a synopsis of Tokyo Story, a classic film he and his granddaughter watched. The movie's plot may well relate thematically to the novel, but five pages? It felt like a speed bump on an otherwise smooth ride.