California Literary Review

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

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September 23rd, 2008 at 1:48 pm

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Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
Man in the Dark: A Novel
by Paul Auster
Henry Holt and Co., 192 pp.
CLR Rating: ★½☆☆☆

Brick Wall

Writing about Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog a few years ago, the British novelist Tibor Fischer described it in the following way: ‘it’s like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.’ This memorable image did much to kill Amis’s book. But what was forgotten in the midst of the journalistic excitement this most barbed of lines generated, was the Daily Telegraph review that it was lifted from. Fischer, a great admirer of Amis, was in despair. What had happened to his hero? Why was he producing such terrible books? All the way through Paul Auster’s latest novel I found myself asking similar questions.

I won’t go as far as to suggest that reading Man in the Dark is akin to happening upon an instance of avuncular onanism. But it is something like walking in on your parents. Difficult though it is to accept, Paul Auster has lost his magic. Why pay attention now when the tricks were so much more enjoyable the first time around? Auster’s schtick, the fluid treatment of existential quest in a world governed by competing fictions and multiple contingencies, no longer seems as wondrous as it did.

In The Country of Last Things, Moon Palace, The Music of Chance and The Book of Illusions are among the most compelling novels of the last fifty years, combining the abstract preoccupations of Mittel Europa with the snap and zest of North American crime fiction. Auster married philosophical introspection with pellucid prose, producing, in the process, that great rarity, the page turning novel of ideas. But Auster’s recent output has been weaker than Western democratic capitalism. The Brooklyn Follies, though enjoyable enough, was an exercise in forced hope. Travels in the Scriptorium, a vain irrelevance not worthy of Auster’s talent, read like notes for books that had already been written. If you didn’t know the author’s work inside out you would have missed the intertextual referencing, not to mention the point. The novel’s failure to move beyond a one note trope – that Auster classic of a man in a bare room who doesn’t quite know who he is or what’s going on – was infuriating. The New York Trilogy told this tale twenty years earlier with far more wit and style.

And now there is Man in the Dark, further evidence of its author’s waning powers. The novel is narrated by August Brill, a writer, a widower, an old man. Brill is recovering from a car accident and sharing a house with his daughter and granddaughter, who are both grieving their own losses. Brill can’t sleep and so tells himself a story about a man called Owen Brick, who wakes up to find himself in another America, an America at war, but with itself rather than Iraq. An America in which the Towers stand while all around them falls apart.

The novel begins in familiar tone: ‘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.’ But after this arresting beginning it’s all downhill. This is a novel of dead ends and one way streets. It has little coherence and no vitality. It tries much too hard to be of the moment, to capture something of our time, but in its straining for effect it becomes horribly pretentious. There is nothing important about this book. Man in the Dark has nothing profound to say about the state of the world or the War on Terror. An oft-repeated line, ‘the weird world rolls on,’ apparently penned by Rose Hawthorne, the daughter of Nathaniel, is the novel’s leitmotif. But cute as the phrase is, Auster has failed to build an arresting fiction around it. Man in the Dark is sentimental, slight and by Auster’s exceptional standards, awful.

When August Brill’s tale of an alternative modernity ends abruptly, the novel loses any direction it might have had. Brill then starts talking about films with his granddaughter (and fellow insomniac). Family matters soon intrude upon this meeting of cineastes however and Brill comes excruciatingly close to describing his experience of anal sex with his late wife.

Her education was far more advanced than mine, and she was prepared to do things that would have sent most American girls shrieking from the bed.

Such as?

Use your imagination, Katya.

You’re not going to shock me, you know. I went to Sarah Lawrence remember? The sex capital of the Western world. I’ve been all around the block, believe me.

The body has a limited number of orifices. Let’s just say that we explored every one of them.

In other words, Grandma was good in bed.

At this point I felt as Ali fans must have, watching the great man stay in the ring too long, speed gone, punched around, losing one too many fights. Auster’s dialogue has always been his flaw. With the exception of Mr Vertigo, a real departure in style and one of Auster’s finest books, the novels creak with artificial and stilted exchanges, essay-like meditations in which everyone sounds alike and no one can tell a good joke. But that has never really mattered. Auster has always given great story (or stories given the way that one tale shades almost imperceptibly into another). His best novels have a fabular quality, the ring of the Brothers Grimm. They feel as if they have always been there, like Jack Torrance in the Overlook Hotel. But Man in the Dark does not even give good story. It’s a frustrating, stop-start drift of a book that is as much about its author’s failure to find a subject, as it is anything else.

Since the publication of The Book of Illusions, the creeping shadows of mortality and the affects of accident and sudden violence have featured prominently in Auster’s novels. Where his characters once took to the road, now they take stock. But The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night had a sense of mystery that made them read like thrillers. That has gone. Auster is writing on empty. In Trainspotting Sick Boy outlines his theory of creativity to Renton while they are out shooting dogs with an air rifle. ‘You’ve got it, then you lose it.’ Well, Auster obsessives, and I have long counted myself among that tribe, this most brilliant of modern authors has lost it. He has become the title of his latest book. I really hope he finds the light again.

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