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The Book of Illusions – Andy still doesn’t know how to pronounce “Auster”

November 27, 2011

I like to think it’s Oster. But I guess it’s probably Ouster. Would prefer it to be the first, I have to say. Not sure why.

I was completely won over by Auster’s New York Trilogy, and I seem to remember that Netty quite liked it too. I can’t remember if I had to fight to get it on the Revisited List (or whatever we’re calling this bit) this year, but he was a monty for me. Any writer who can not only overcome my distaste for post-modernism and metafiction, but win me over so utterly, deserves a second look.

With The Book of Illusions, Auster does it again. Possibly even more convincingly.

Before we begin… This post may contain spoilers. Or it may not. I haven’t really decided yet. That’s helpful, isn’t it?

David Zimmer, an academic, has lost his wife and two children in a plane crash. He’s effectively become a moribund drunk. Late one night his alcohol-bleared TV surfing leads him to a documentary about silent film stars. One of them, one he’d never heard of before, lodges in his mind and his imagination. Hector Mann made a small number of short comedies at the end of the silent era – and then disappeared. Zimmer becomes obsessed, tracks down and watches all of the existing Mann comedies, takes copious notes, collates his research, writes a book … and then one day a letter arrives …

I’ll dispense with the quibbles I had with the book first. There are a couple of weird, awkward moments early in the book that I think Auster tries to use to convey Zimmer’s blighted state of mind. One involves some drunken unpleasantness at a party, the other a minor car accident. Neither seem terribly necessary and neither works terribly well. But this might be because a) I don’t go to parties much; b) I don’t drive; and c) like Zimmer I’m a solitary drunk, and for me the embarrassments you inflict upon yourself drunk, in your own company, are often far more devastating than those others witness. Or maybe I’m making that bit up. Anyway, those couple of episodes are well written but not particularly well executed – but then they didn’t form vital elements of the narrative.

Arguably more important is the central slab of the book in which Zimmer is given the story of Mann’s life after he disappeared (no, he wasn’t dead, but that’s not really a spoiler because you get that bit from the blurb on the back cover). This is brilliantly written – I’m told Auster has written some not terribly awesome words, although I am yet to encounter them – but this is almost a weakness. The writing is superb but it sometimes doesn’t really feel like something Zimmer is being told – by someone, incidentally, who hadn’t experienced it herself but who is conveying details she herself has been told. So we are getting this account of Mann’s life third-hand from Zimmer – and yet it zings off the page with a vibrancy and an intimacy that belies its emotional and temporal distance. So a little unbelievable, perhaps. And yet beautiful to read. And utterly compulsive. And, unlike the party scene and the accident, so well executed that the reader is prepared to gloss over its unlikely details.

Like the New York Trilogy, The Book of Illusions is a mystery, although it’s as different to those three stories as they were to each other. For the most part here the mystery is solved – although given that everything Zimmer is told is essentially hearsay there’s a wee leap of faith involved in that assumption. There are mysteries for the first third of the book, which then seem to be cleared up, for the most part; but then towards the end other mysteries arise and these, again, are only unravelled through a third party. Zimmer has a few things to hang his hat on – a fleeting meeting with an ancient man he is convinced is Hector Mann; a viewing of a film, one of many Mann is supposed to have made after he disappeared from Hollywood in the 2os. But really he only has the word of others to rely on. I don’t know that this is what Auster means by calling his novel The Book of Illusions – is the novel itself a collections of illusions? Perhaps. Certainly the conclusion, for my money (OK I’ve decided not to be toooooo much of a spoiler) is quite delusional – which puts me at odds with many of the critics. Auster brings his story “safely to earth with a very human simplicity”, says one critic on the back cover. Um. OK then. “The reader comes away from the dark ending of The Book of Illusions with a sense of hope,” says another. Really? A sense of humour, hopefully, and a dark one at that, but I don’t know about a sense of hope. “An emotional puzzle of one man’s broken heart that the author mends, page by ingenious page.” Well perhaps, arguably, if by “mends” you mean brings him to the point where he has to fantasise about the circumstances he has found himself in to survive. But perhaps that is one of Auster’s postmodernisty, metafictivy, existentialisty, nihilisticy points – that we all delude ourselves to get from one day to the next. Which is bollocks, IMHO, but if that is his point then by fuck he’s made it spectacularly. If not terribly convincingly. For me, at least.

The Book of Illusions is a book about cinema. Film. About images. About stories. About making films, and making stories. Telling stories. Making the stories you’re telling seem like the truth. Deluding people. Deluding yourself. Creating illusions. There are weaknesses but they are minor. This is seriously impressive fiction.

As with Roth and Bukowski, I am left wanting to read more of Auster. Right now. I have other things to do, unfortunately, other things to read, other things to write (hopefully). But I’ve already managed to get another Bukowski under my belt this year, in addition to Ham on Rye (and I can also, thanks to a certain Scotsman, heartily recommend Factotum). Roth will get a guernsey soon enough. And so will Auster.

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