Castle of Loss
Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
Review by John Freeman
Man in the Dark
Henry Holt and Co.
Insomnia is guilt’s yoke, and it has a firm grip upon the aging book critic at the heart of Paul Auster’s moody and moving new novel, Man in the Dark. Seventy-two-year-old August Brill sits in the dark of his daughter’s house in Vermont, unable to sleep. He has been rehabilitating from a car crash and reeling from the recent loss of his wife, Sonia. To bide his time, and to distract his heart from other losses it cannot forget, Brill tells himself stories—one after the next, building a fictional castle into which he retreats.
It is clear from the beginning that Brill’s exercise in imagination is a stay of execution before harsher, more literal truth-telling later in the story. But it works anyway because Auster is such an assured storyteller. Within a few sentences, he punctures disbelief and pulls readers into a new reality. Brill has imagined a parallel America in which the Twin Towers were not attacked, but the country is at war with itself. A young magician named Owen Brick wakes up to find himself there with a deadly assignment and a crew of villains who plan to hold him to it. This would be an adventure were the stakes are not so high.
Toggling between this increasingly tense fantasy and the grimmer realities of Brill’s lonely life, Auster has crafted a stirring, politically charged portrait of the power of fiction. “There are many worlds,” a military figure tells Brick in the alternate reality Brill has created for him. “Worlds and anti-worlds, worlds and shadow-worlds, and each world is dreamed or imagined or written by someone in another world.” In other words, even this reality—the one where we are at war in Iraq, and the Twin Towers have fallen—has been written by someone, or a set of someones.
Auster’s fiction is full of bendy narratives that fold in upon themselves to question the whole point of yarn-spinning. Man in the Dark transcends this gambit aesthetic, however, in the sheer, powerful intimacy that Auster brings to Brill’s voice. It is searching and mournful, haunted and yet not self-pitying. In the later stages of the book, Brill tenderly speaks to his granddaughter, who, like him, struggles under the weight of an inconceivable loss. In the final pages, he performs a grave high-wire act. Knowing his granddaughter desperately wants a distraction, he changes pace and tells her the story of his marriage: a painful, indelible and utterly true tale. Sadly, like this one, it cannot bring back what both of them have lost.
Auster has crafted a stirring, politically charged portrait of the power of fiction.
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