Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark

Sometimes I wish that, when buying a book in a book store, you were automatically given a complimentary title – that is to say, a book that will help you read the one you’ve just bought, as opposed to the ‘like this? you’ll love that’ recommendation.

For example, with Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark, you’d be hard pushed to find a better companion-piece than Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil.  Even if from their covers and respective lengths & weights, through to their plot locations and writing styles, they couldn’t be more different. Auster’s novel is short, compact, and somberely packaged, while Aslam’s novel is weighty, long, and in keeping with the style of the story within its pages its cover has a beautiful and detailed image that catches the eye. Auster’s novel is set in America, with a cast list of Americans, while Aslam’s novel is set in Afghanistan and is peopled by Afghans, Russians, English, and Americans.

In some aspects, though, the two stories meet – they are both stories that revolve around a house, and a central platonic relationship between an older man and a younger woman, struggling with grief. Both novels engage with politics – and in particular the post-9/11 world, although both novels make a strong claim against the idea of using september 11th as a dividing line for a world of before and after.

For the moment, though, let’s look at Auster’s book. Apparently written in a frenzy, this short book is, as one might expect of Auster, a tricky proposition. The man in the dark refered to in the title could either be the narrator, or a character he has created in a fiction designed to keep his mind off the real world during dark hours of insomnia. Or it could be mankind in general.

It’s a restless book, befitting its setting. The narrator, the recently widowed seventy-two year old August Brill is recuperating, with his daughter, after  a near-fatal car crash.

“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. Upstairs, my daughter and granddaughter are asleep in their bedrooms, each one alone as well, the forty-seven-year-old Miriam, my only child, who has slept alone for the past five years, and twenty-three-year-old Katya, Miriam’s only child, who used to sleep with a young man named Titus Small, but Titus is dead now, and Katya sleeps alone with her broken heart”

Can a novel be bold and understated at the same time? This opening paragraph with its matter-of-fact description of an extraordinary scene – grief laid on grief, evocative names laden with import, yet all grounded by solid detail (that careful cataloguing of the ages of each), glued together with a consoling rhythm is typical of the book.

While sleepless, Brill conjures up a story which starts with a man in the dark,  a hapless party-tricks magician named Owen Brick, who is stuck in a hole. He emerges into a world where September the 11th never happened, and where America is involved in a vicious civil war provoked by the secession of a number of states after George W. Bush won/stole the election in 2000. Brick is charged with a vital mission that will end the war – to track down a man, Augustus Brill, in whose mind this war has been created. Kill him and it will all finish (along with what else?). An old idea – as Auster acknowledges, namechecking amongst others Giordano Bruno – but one that is given an interesting urgency by its context (though, for my money, no-one has ever done it better than Flann O’Brien in At-Swim-Two-Birds).

What impresses, though, is that Auster scarcely engages with this particularly juicy conceit, and has brought it to a conclusion halfway through what is a short book. His interests lie elsewhere, in particular with the human bonds in this grieving house, and how they interact, using art as a shoulder to lean on, to get through the night. There are twists and turns along the way, and harsh doses of reality, but the conviction remains that the morning will come.

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