Man in the Dark
by Paul Auster
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Giordano Bruno proposed the existence of alternative universes back in
the sixteenth century . . . and he was burnt at the stake. Philip K. Dick
did the same thing four hundred years later, and he received only a
slightly warmer (or perhaps “cooler” is the
better word) response from the literary
world of his day. In the new millennium,
both Bruno and Dick are enshrined in the
pantheon of the greats, and alternative
universes have gone mainstream.
We find this once arcane subject, formerly
restricted to sci-fi or metaphysics, thrust
into the center of many contemporary
narratives. Alternative universes provide
the impetus for modern novels by serious
litterateurs such as Michael Chabon ( The
Yiddish Policemen's Union) and Philip Roth
(The Plot Against America), among others,
and serve as the springboard for a host of movies from Sliding Doors to
The Matrix. We find them in children’s books, video games, TV series,
comic books—indeed, in virtually any and every type of narrative
As I have pointed out elsewhere, experimentation with levels of reality
looms larger in modern fiction than experimentation with language or
syntax. We live in the age of what I like to call “conceptual fiction,” and
few writers are more adept at it than Paul Auster. So we shouldn’t be
surprised when this celebrated novelist pursues his own alternative
universe fantasy in his new book Man in the Dark.
Of course, Auster has always been a master of metafiction, of the story
thrust uneasily inside another story. Even in an early effort, such as his
The New York Trilogy, Auster was setting up conflicts between different
levels in the narrative the way youngsters create head-on collisions
with their Lionel train set. In Man in the Dark, as in so many other
Auster works, the main character is a writer, and the stories he tells
have the potential to obliterate real life.
In this instance, the story within the story seems to have potential to
obliterate the storyteller too. Auster’s protagonist, August Brill, creates
a tale in which the main character, Corporal Owen Brick, is assigned the
task of murdering the tale’s author—in other words, Brill himself. Why
would characters want to murder their own author? Because Brill has
placed them in the midst of an ugly war story, a bristling account of a
new Civil War between red states and blue states in George W. Bush’s
America. The characters believe (not implausibly) that if they murder the
author, it will end the bloody war. Of course, it might also eliminate all
the characters too—but they are willing to take that chance.
Yet Brick is hesitant about accepting his role in the proposed
assassination of Brill. In time, he finds himself pursued by his military
superiors, who threaten to kill him unless he carries out his assigned
murder. I won’t disclose all the plot twists in this tautly constructed
novel, but I will say that when it comes to conflicts between an author
and a character, I will wager my money that the writer wins in the end.
They don’t call it poetic license for nothing.
Auster is constantly shifting gears in Man in the Dark. He turns on a dime
from universe number one—real America of the modern day, populated
by Brill and his floundering family—to universe number two, where Brick
and company struggle for survival in the midst of a deadly war. Each of
these universes has its own subplots and flashbacks, and the constant
disjunction of time, place and context makes this a very busy 180 page
book. Auster, who in other settings has shown his ability to build effects
slowly, rushes through Man in the Dark at a breakneck pace.
At times, the story moves ahead too precipitously. Two-thirds of the
way through this novel, Auster shuts down one of his main plots in a
few sentences. I am reminded of those raw attempts at closure—as in
Jean-Luc Godard’s film Vivre sa vie or even the final episode of The
Sopranos—where the abruptness of the resolution is so jarring that it
almost shakes the audience out of the “suspension of disbelief” so
essential to traditional storytelling. It is almost as if Auster is warning
his readers not to get too deeply engaged in his tale, since the sets and
scenery might dissolve at a moment’s notice.
Some of the best aspects of this book are the parts least essential to
the unfolding plots. Auster provides a long digression on the role of
physical objects in cinema that is brilliant, albeit awkwardly inserted in
the flow of the narrative. Elsewhere he squeezes in reflections on Rose
Hawthorne, daughter of novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. And toward the
close of the book he threatens to start a whole new alternative
universe built around Dot and Dash, “a chubby waitress and a grizzled
short-order cook.” But each of these interludes is a feint. Auster keeps
coming back to the central figure of August Brill, whose imagination is
the center of the only universe that really matters in Man in the Dark.
This book, for all its moments of brilliance, seems quite choppy. This
writer feeds on his stories the way a snake might try to digest its own
tail. Where other authors build large luminous structures, Auster creates
volatile narratives that seem fascinated by the possibility of destroying
their own premises. I’m not sure you can ever settle comfortably into
this type of fiction. Then again, I suspect that Paul Auster prefers to
keep his readers outside of their comfort zones. And that is something
that he clearly achieves throughout Man in the Dark.
This review was originally published on Blogcritics.