A review of Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Man in the Dark
by Paul Auster
Henry Holt and Company 
2008, ISBN 10-0-8050-8839-3, $23.00, 180 pages

Paul Auster has written many books. Some of these stand out as eminent of their kind, either fulfillment of the dictates of postmodernism or parodies of them. The playfulness does not always pay off: is a heavy-handed example. Others of his books are scarcely readable, but he wrote The New York Trilogy and The Brooklyn Follies, both works of outstanding merit, so a new book by Auster is an event and the suspense as to its quality is keen. The central figure of Man in the Dark is August Brill. As he whiles away the tedium of insomniac night he imagines an alternative universe in which the United States is racked by civil war, a war arising from disgust over Bush’s election to the presidency. In this alternative world an obscure magician is taken from his round of children’s party entertainments and from this world into the other. He receives a special mission, to assassinate the man who keeps the war going by his imagination. Owen Brick is to murder August Brill.

This expresses the suicidal wishes of Brill. And he has little reason to love life. A shattered leg confines him to his bed or to a wheelchair. His wife Sonia is lately dead and he lives with his daughter Miriam whose husband of many years left her for a younger woman. Also of the household is Brill’s granddaughter Katya – the daughter of Miriam – who is anguished over the death of her lover Titus. These are sad people, damaged by the cruelties of life.

There are, therefore, two plots and Auster is careful to balance them and to minimize the part that Brill plays in the alternative world. The reader will accept the reality of Owen Brick and of his wife Flora, and feel for the pressure put upon them by thugs from the civil war milieu to assassinate Brill, an act that is insuperably repugnant to Brick.

Auster artfully allows us to empathize with Brick and then he brutally kills him. It’s Brill, of course, that is guilty. He simply wearies of his own suicidal urges and the best solution for him is to wipe out all the fantasy that has supported it.

The remainder of the book – a good third of it in fact – involves his reminiscences of his wife Sonia. He tells his granddaughter all that he can about Sonia, a consolation and a form of healing for her in her bereavement.

The book is short and sharply structured. It moves quickly and makes its points neatly. It is inescapably cold in some respects but the reader will come from it with an unforgettable experience. It is a pleasure to see a writer of such gifts – albeit sometimes uneven performance – produce a work of this quality.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places