Man in the Dark

An elderly man — widower, father, grandfather — undergoing a prolonged and proleptic “dark night of the soul” in a house inhabited by his daughter and granddaughter, themselves similarly bereaved and beset with demons of mourning, dissatisfaction and self-recrimination.

A counterfactual world where the United States of America is writhing under a new civil war, and only one seemingly insignificant man has the power to stop the carnage.

Now: consider the inexplicable and unlikely intersection of these two spheres, and the richness of meaning that might result.

Intriguing, no? Perhaps the reader might reasonably expect something as powerful and seminal as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Christopher Priest’s award-winning The Separation. Especially since the author delivering the new novel is none other than Paul Auster, proven master of fabulism and mimesis alike.

Alas, after deriving much enjoyment from Auster’s previous work over many years, it is my sad duty to report that Man in the Dark is a wan and unaffecting affair, uninventive, insipid and tedious. Not only do its two strands fail individually and fail to come together, but by yoking the realistic and fantastic together like horses pulling in different directions, Auster actually sabotages both his narratives.

The novel frames its more speculative plot within one that takes place in a recognizable present day. Elderly August Brill, aged 72 and, of late, partially crippled, was once a noted book critic and journalist. With the death of his wife, Sonia, from cancer, he’s come to live with his daughter, Miriam, herself divorced. Miriam is also housing her daughter, Katya, whose husband was recently killed in Iraq. The real-time of the tale consists of but a few hours in a single night during which Brill cannot sleep and consequently ruminates on his life and those of his family members, and also invents a make-believe bedtime story, hoping to lull himself to slumber as he has done many times before.

This soporific tale-within-a-tale focuses on one Owen Brick. Initially, Brick inhabits our familiar timeline (in other words, August’s historically canonical world as well), where he’s an unassuming children’s party magician. But one strange day, Brick wakes up in another continuum where George W. Bush’s contested 2000 election has brought about civil war. Brick has been transported here deliberately by a faction that has discovered that this warped and suffering timeline has been engendered by a deific creator — none other than Brill himself. Brick’s mission, after seeing the educational carnage: return to the baseline reality and assassinate Brill to end the transports of his trapped creatures. Thus Brill inhabits his own waking dream in a suicidal manner.

Auster’s aims aren’t hard to intuit: First, to conjure up a sympathetic protagonist undergoing a resonant moral and spiritual crisis — a man trapped in the wreckage of his own life — and to deliver him from same — or allow the protagonist to deliver himself from same — by experiencing a revelatory passage through the soul’s dark forest.

Second, to play the venerable and honorable science fiction game of twisting history ingeniously for edifying effects, incorporating subsidiary characters of some lesser but still rich dimensionality.

Third, to blend the two strains so that the mimetic illuminates the counterfactual, and vice versa — Brick reflecting Brill, Brill mirroring Brick — resulting in a slippery new fictional entity full of ontological enigmas.

But I can’t say Auster succeeds on any level. August Brill as a suffering figure meant to invoke the reader’s sympathy, along with his morbid womenfolk, leaves me cold. Much if not all of Brill’s grief is self-induced — as he himself admits — and he’s actually not that badly off, compared to millions of elderly adrift without friends or wealth. I suspect we’re intended to regard Brill as some kind of Everyman. At one point he asks Katya, his granddaughter, to call him “Augie,” subliminally conjuring up literature’s most famous bearer of that name, Augie March. But the boring, trivial specifics of Brill’s life attain no such heroic measure. Indeed, Katya (and by proxy her mother, Miriam) have taken a cruel blow with the murder of Katya’s husband in Iraq. But this fate, relating to a larger criticism discussed below, strikes me as arbitrary and tendentious.

Then there’s Brill’s narrative voice. He reminds me at frequent intervals of one of John Barth’s more annoyingly fussy narrators — without the ultra-tangled diction, admittedly; Auster’s prose is always clean-limbed and straightforward — so self-conscious and fey and artificial as to leach all raw human meaning from the telling of the tale. Moreover, the two main motifs — movie viewing, with its reputed healing power of imagery, and the biography of Rose Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s daughter — come across as superficial and seem to go nowhere at all.

Which brings us to Owen Brick and his story. The tale Brill fashions for Brick is — deliberately, I think, on Auster’s part — skeletal and contrived. After all, Brill is not a novelist but a critic, with no evident powers of imagination. His bedtime story, intended for an audience of one, is necessarily vapid and stale by both professional and genre standards. The alternate world is shoddy and ill-built. Defining Brill as an amateur storyteller necessarily limits what Auster can have him plausibly produce. But unfortunately, we have to read his maunderings as well.

Science-fictionally speaking, the theme of a USA torn apart has been handled masterfully as far back as Ron Goulart’s After Things Fell Apart (1970) and continues to be implemented today in a fine series of graphic novels titled DMZ by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli. The notion of a writer dooming his sentient characters to suffer can be found at least as far back as L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky (1940). The textual relationship between Kurt Vonnegut and Kilgore Trout seems relevant to our discussion of antecedents as well.

In one sense, that doesn’t matter: SF ideas are “power chords,” to use the metaphor coined by Rudy Rucker, shared building-blocks free to be employed in new and better narrative structures. But Auster exerts little ingenuity or passion in constructing his counterfactual world. And then — get ready for a bit of a spoiler — 70 pages before the end of his book, he throws it all away! It’s pure naturalism from that point forward, and a long slog it is.

But so long as the two worlds are still in juxtaposition, surely they play meaningfully off each other? Well, Brill does give Brick for a first teenage romance his (Brill’s) own actual first puppy love. And at one point in the frame-tale, Brill refers to himself metaphorically as a “magician,” Brick’s actual occupation. But nothing about Brick’s dilemma or circumstances echoes or illuminates Brill’s in a clever or even superficial way.

Perhaps the grievous political situation of the alternate timeline — only sketched in the vaguest of terms, remember — offers lessons for us? Hardly. Positioning this book on the scale of anti-Bush, post-9/11 novels, I’d have to rank it at the most innocuous end of the spectrum, somewhere considerably south of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (2004). Its indictment of the various malfeasances of the past eight years is almost nonexistent — which is why, as I alluded to earlier, the death of Katya’s husband, inflicted by terrorist assassins, jumps out as particularly unearned and offensive.

Seeking to produce a novel that would mingle the personal and the political, the actual and the hypothetical, the implacable world and its fixed history with a malleable one, Auster instead delivers a book that wrestles with arbitrary and inconsequential ghosts.