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.
Another great opening line from Auster in his 2008 novel. The narrator is August Brill, a writer who is seventy-two, living again with his daughter and his grand-daughter after smashing his leg up in a car accident. All three of them are suffering. August, not just from his leg, but remembering his late wife Sonia; Miriam is still in limbo from the split from her husband five years ago; and poor Katya’s boyfriend Titus was murdered in horrific circumstances. It’s no wonder Brill can’t sleep.
The action in this novel take place over a single night, as Brill lies there awake reflecting on his family and what they’ve been through, his mind racing. It is obvious that August Brill is in a very dark place in this novel, not necessarily suicidal, but definitely feeling his own mortality. However, to distract himself from these thoughts, he starts composing a story as he lies there. As I have grown to expect from Auster, this story within a story is more than a little weird.
In it, Owen Brick wakes up in a hole, from which he is rescued, told to walk into the distant town where a man has a mission for him; his rescuer zooms off in the opposite direction. Brick initially does as he is told and gradually realises that he is not in the USA that he knows. In this America, a new civil war is raging between the north and south and neither 9/11 nor the Iraq War happened.
This is America, and America is fighting America.
What are you talking about?
Civil war, Brick. Don’t you know anything? This is the fourth year. But now that you’ve turned up, it’s going to end soon.
Two women ‘help’ Brick – Molly the waitress in a run-down cafe, and the beautiful Virginia Blaine, an agent who is the embodiment of one of Brill’s teen fantasies in the story. But their ‘help’ is double-edged; when Brick finally discovers what his mission is to be, he rebels.
Brill’s noir story of this fish out of water in an alt-America is a bit like something out of Homeland done Vonnegut style. Indeed, it is primarily Brill’s (and Auster’s) response to the Iraq War, which got Titus killed. Auster’s own anger and frustration at Dubya winning the 2000 election in shady circumstances and then taking the USA into Iraq is palpable in this story, but especially in the part where Brill goes over how Titus died.
The most touching sections involve his grand-daughter Katya, with whom Brill has spent many afternoons vegging out on the sofa watching and analysing movies. Katya is a film studies student, but hasn’t gone back to her studies yet after Titus’ death. Still they watch films together, and Katya picks out the moments when the best film-makers can imbue a simple object, be it curtains or a watch with all the weight of human emotion of the film. Auster is a film afficcionado, and I sense he enjoyed putting in these discussions between Katya and August. In Katya Auster has created one of his more strongly realised female characters. Indeed from his middle works onwards, Auster puts more female characters into his narratives; in fact they outnumber the men in this novel.
What I hadn’t previously known though, until I read up about Auster’s output, is that Man in the Dark was written as a companion novel to his previous novella, Travels in the Scriptorium (2006) – which I reviewed here last year, not knowing that! The two novels have since been republished in a single volume as Day / Night – the events of Travels all take place over one day. Travels features a disoriented old man, Mr Blank, who wakes up in a locked, watched room. He is urged by all those who visit him (whom I now realise are all characters from other Auster novels), to read a manuscript on the desk set in another alternate world. Although Man in the Dark doesn’t have any of this crossover of characters, the parallels with Travels seem obvious now!
Man in the Dark was also a re-read for me. Having read it first back in 2008, I certainly enjoyed and understood it more second time around. Auster is definitely a writer whose work benefits the re-reader.
Ultimately, I think I enjoyed Man in the Dark more than Travels. Being about thirty pages longer than Travels, which at 160 pages is a definite novella, it has space for the two sides of the story, the real and the imagined, to be told. Auster also touches on what we now call ‘fake news’ and sets out to deliberately rattle us with Titus’ story. (8.5/10)
Source: Own copy. Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Faber, 2008) paperback, 192 pages.