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In which Netty emerges from Auster’s Dark into the light …

December 24, 2011

Two years ago, summing up a year of books and doing my annual top 10 list, I declared Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy my second favourite for 2009 – only very, very narrowly pipped at the post by Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. So no question from me – nor from Andy – that Auster was high up the pecking order in this year’s Revisited list. Any excuse to take another spin through the great man’s ever-so-slightly-twisted-but-in-a-good-way mind …

So while Andy tackled The Book Of Illusions, I plumped for Man In The Dark, which came out in 2008 (Auster, who is 64, has since published a further two novels to take his tally to 16, along with three collections of poetry, five screenplays and another half dozen collated essays and memoirs). It had been sitting on my bookshelf untouched for a year or so, just waiting to be called into action – and this being the ridiculously busy month of December, I also appreciated that it clocks in at a mere 180 pages of big-ish type.

Of course it didn’t disappoint, and of course it immediately made me want to lock myself away for the next couple of months reading my way through the rest of Auster’s novels. In my best-of-2009 blog, I described New York Trilogy as a “mindfuck”. There certainly is a warped inventiveness in Auster’s storytelling that I have not encountered to such a high level in any other author’s output – or at least not that readily springs to mind.

To wit: check this out as a concept. It is 2007. A man by the name of Owen Brick wakes up in a four-metre-wide cylindrical hole in the ground. He is dressed in a soldier’s uniform, even though he is a magician by trade who had never spent any time in the forces. He spends a night in the hole, and is woken the next morning by a man who identifies himself as Sergeant Serge Tobak. He tells Brick he has been chosen to assassinate the man responsible for the post-2000 election civil war that has been raging in the United States for the past six years. In this alternate reality, the Twin Towers did not fall, and America did not go to war with Iraq. Instead, after the Supreme Court decision that formalised the outcome of the 2000 election, major riots led to the Electoral College being abolished and secession by the eastern states, leading to attacks by the Federals and the deaths of more than 100,000 in the ensuing war. And here is the rub: the war started, and continues, because the man in question invented the concept, runs the war in his own head and has to be taken out in order for the war to cease. Maybe.

Brilliant, isn’t it? Would you have dreamed that up? Nope, me neither.

But wait – there’s more. The book opens just after midnight, in the bedroom of 72-year-old retired book critic August Brill. Brill, recently widowed and recovering from a car accident that crushed his legs and nearly took his life, shares his home with his daughter Miriam and grand-daughter Katya. The women also have their problems – Miriam’s marriage ended five years ago, while Katya’s boyfriend Titus was recently murdered in the Iraq war. Battling insomnia night after night, Brill tells himself stories in the vain hope that he will fall asleep. Brick – and Brick’s story – is Brill’s latest invention.

The two strands run concurrently – Brill and his family; and Brick, in and out of his two worlds – pre and post-waking up in the hole. And the overarching theme for both characters is war: Brick is thrust into a literal war, while Brill – and his grand-daughter – are at war inside their own heads. Auster weaves the two stories – three, really, as Brick’s is double-pronged – seamlessly and effortlessly; indeed, masterfully. If there is anyone out there who does it better, I want to know about them – stat.

Auster is not considered particularly political in his writing, but there is a heavy undertone throughout the Brick passages. It is easy – perhaps too easy – to see this as his response to being a New Yorker in a post-9-11 world. Meanwhile, Auster attacks the politics of the personal in the Brill passages. The surreal, unbelievable and almost absurd tempo of Brick’s world/s is contrasted with the unfolding, touching story of Brill and his family, as recounted by Brill to Katya. No spoilers from me here, but by the end of the novel, in a short, shocking denouement, it becomes apparent exactly what demons Brill – and also Katya – are elusively trying to chase away in their never-ending long, dark night of the soul.

So if you are not yet acquainted with Mr Auster, may I suggest you get a hurry on. If you like your fiction innovative and challenging – nay, mind-bending – he’s definitely your go-to guy, As for me, I’m off to Amazon to order his back catalogue. Then I’m off to the holiday roster to book the month or so off I’m gonna need to get through it. A month or so spent in the mind  – and the words – of this man? Hell yeah. Bring it.

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