Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

I know what you are thinking.  What is Kevin doing reviewing a dark, and some would say anti-American, Paul Auster novel heading into the Fourth of July weekend?

I am not sure, but after another decision to dedicate myself to catching up in posting reviews of books I have read, I came across Man In the Dark on the list and figured I would just plow on through. So here goes.

I listened to the audiobook in the car during my daily commute and enjoyed it. I really liked the sections dealing with Owen Brick and the other world of civil war America.

The energy seemed to drain out of it towards the end however as August Brill and his daughter have a long talk about his past. The conclusion attempts to tie it together but I am not sure it quite worked.

In light of further vague and distant recollections from me, let’s take a gander at some reviews.

Publisher’s Weekly:

As he gives voice to ailing retired book critic August Brill, Auster milks the story-within-a-story structure to full effect. Impatient listeners may wonder exactly where this disparate tale of revisionist history, war, marital disappointments and grief might be headed. But with the nuanced—yet palpable—use of inflection, Auster compels his audience to await the twists and turns. As an invalid with an active imagination and time on his hands, Brill makes his frailties tangible and emotionally compelling without descending into full-blown pathos.

The New Yorker:

The narrative juxtapositions and the riddling starkness of Auster’s prose create an absorbing if mildly scattershot effect, breathing life into a meditation on the difference between the stories we want to tell and the stories we end up telling.

Some critics had a much more negative take. See this NYT review for example:

After, say, 10 books, maybe novelists should be retested, like accident-prone senior citizens renewing their driver’s licenses. Veterans of literary wars would anonymously submit a new manuscript to agents. Of “Man in the Dark,” I think they’d say, “third-rate imitation of Paul Auster.” Then the author might decide to rev up a first-rate imitation of his first-rate early work. Or he might write a fourth-rate attack on literary agents.

Or the Guardian:

Politics is also shoehorned in. The new American civil war is an alternative to the present reality: the Twin Towers are still standing and therefore America is only at war with itself, not with Iraq. How much 9/11 was responsible for the Iraq War rather than being a handy excuse for it is a matter of debate, but as worlds go, Brill’s invented one is remarkably small. North America seems to be alone on the planet. Political change has no implications beyond the personal. This other America is a very sketchy proposition that exists merely to offer comfort to Brill; he doesn’t have to think about Titus’s end if there is no Iraq War. Solipsism is the only game in town in this novel. Narcissism is piled on narcissism. It is, you might say, the very essence of Roxy Music.

Let’s wrap up this quote train with one from Alan Rafferty:

Auster is often – rightly – characterised as a postmodern author, and the story-based approach to character development he employs here owes much to Jacques Lacan. Auster is also a witty writer, prepared to play with his literary heritage. Having Brill imagine his own would-be killer into existence is, of course, a droll reference to Roland Barthes‘s writings on the death of the author: a suicide in Brill’s case. Auster’s fiddling with characters and entangling of storylines is playful and entertaining, as well as ostentatiously clever.

That Paul Auster is again nimbly dropping his characters into and out of stories and deftly digressing on a wide range of topics shows that, in Man in the Dark, he has regained his poise. The book is in part a response to the Iraq war, and Auster deals with current affairs better here than he did in The Brooklyn Follies (set on the eve of 9/11), although his politics remain uncomplicatedly monochrome. What’s more, in the war he has found something important to say about the bad things that happen to us in life, and why we should keep going anyway.

One interesting theory I have is that listening to it via audiobook improved the experience for me.  The oral perspective added to the success of the story telling and lessened the focus on the prose.  I enjoy the character and narrative interplay of the first half more because I was listening to it rather than reading it.

Just a theory.  Perhaps I will pull Travels in a Scriptorium off the shelf and read it.  The comparison might shed some light on my enjoyment of Auster novels with a political approach that is quite different from my own.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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