Book Review: Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

(Faber & Faber) £14.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

In the grip of insomnia, August Brill attempts to steer his long night’s journey into day away from the darkness of heartache that envelops the three generations gathered in the archetypal white clapperboard house in Vermont. Brill, a 72 year old, Pulitzer Prize winning critic is both mourning the recent death of his wife and recuperating from a car crash, his middle-aged daughter, Miriam, is unable to move on from her divorce, whilst Katya, his granddaughter, is struggling to come to terms with the horrific execution of her boyfriend.

To keep his ghosts at bay, Brill variously attempts to keep his mind distracted by reflecting in detail on the three films that he and Katya watched earlier in the evening, Grand Illusion, The Bicycle Thief, and The World of Apu, reading the manuscript of Miriam’s biography of Rose Hawthorne, the daughter of transcendentalist poet Nathaniel Hawthornel, and most successfully, inspired by Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno’s theory of infinite parallel universes, creating a story set in a parallel America, in which the Twin Towers are still standing and the 2000 election of George W. Bush lead not to a War on Terror, but to a second American Civil War, as the union disintegrated as state after state seceded. But, in the “black center of the dead of night” his critique of a nation’s journey into the heart of darkness, is overtaken by the stories of familial tragedy that refuse to be stifled any longer.

Man in the Dark attests to Auster’s extraordinary and rare ability to mix film and literary criticism, philosophy, and political polemic into a novel without ever being prosaic, and in fact creating a book that is so highly readable and tightly written that the thrill of the words and ideas causes involuntary shudders of anticipation at the beginning of every paragraph.

The book has no chapter breaks, just as Brill is afforded no break in his stream of consciousness by sleep. Auster skilfully evokes the rhythm of a restless night both for the man in the dark, and for a nation in the dark. On that broader level, the book may be read as a clarion call, both national and international, that we should heed now and not wait until dawn for the alarm clock.

It is a book that demands to be read in a single sitting, or lying if similarly affected by insomnia; though the themes are often far from comforting, there is comfort to be found in the lonely cloak of sleeplessness that one’s thoughts and fears are shared by others; the “ironic points of light” that WH Auden envisaged in September 1 1939, the poem now so oft associated with 9/11, that “flash out” as “defenceless under the night/our world in stupor lies”.

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