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BOOK REVIEW

Enough to keep you up at night

Man in the Dark A Novel Paul Auster Henry Holt: 180 pp., $23

August 24, 2008|Jane Smiley | Jane Smiley's latest novel, "Ten Days in the Hills," has been published in paperback.

As PAUL AUSTER'S new novel, "Man in the Dark," opens, August Brill, 73, knows well that every member of his small family is in bad shape. Worried, grieving, in pain, they reflect the condition of the United States, mired in a pointless war that magnifies rather than relieves the dangers it was meant to address.

Nevertheless, Brill's first-person narration maintains an even, almost idle, tone as each member of the family does something or other to pass the days. Brill and his granddaughter, Katya, critique old movies. (She has dropped out of film school.) His daughter, Miriam, works on a book. Nights are the problem -- Brill is beset with insomnia. In lieu of sleep, he concocts a story about an alternative reality in which the Iraq war is taking place in America: Various regions have seceded, and all sorts of services once taken for granted, like television and Internet access, are no longer available. His protagonist is a young man named Owen Brick. Brick's antagonist is a man named Frisk.

Auster's narrative flips back and forth between Brick's story and Brill's personal thoughts. When we first meet Brick, he is trapped in a deep hole, with no memory of how he got there. He is rescued, only to find that the war-torn world he inhabits is not at all like the America he remembers. Moreover, he is expected to execute the assassination of a complete stranger.

Brill, Brick, Frisk, darkness, metafiction, sinuous and elegant style. Yup, it's Paul Auster.

The Brick narrative is the one that builds suspense. The character is not prepared to understand his situation, but his enemies don't care about that: He's expected to follow orders, or to face punishment if he does not. His new world is chaotic; he has no idea who the good guys or the bad guys are. He is left in the dark, to decide between the two baldest choices, murder and suicide.

A narrative built of layers and layers of disorientation is not new for Auster -- this is, in fact, his specialty. It used to be that his young men were disoriented and that their disorientation afforded the reader a new way of seeing the world. Now it is his old men who are disoriented, but their way of seeing the world is more weary than fresh. Frankly, this book could be funnier. Or darker. Or meaner. Or something.

Whatever August Brill has done in the past (promiscuity and adultery seem to be the main things), at 73, he has changed his ways. He is patient and affectionate toward his daughter and his granddaughter, and they love him in return. He has regrets about his marriage, detailed toward the end of the novel, but those too have been resolved. His wife is dead, and he grieves for her, but reparations and redemption have been accomplished. His only tasks now would seem to be getting to sleep and helping his daughter and granddaughter emerge from their own crises.

And yet, Auster isn't up to it. When I was first casting about for why this novel fails, I thought it was the tone. Auster stumbles into an elegiac, sonorous rhythm in the very first paragraph and can never shake it, even by means of the sinister Owen Brick narrative.

Brick is young and active, and he actually has a task -- saving himself.

One clever motif is that the man he is assigned to assassinate is . . . August Brill! As soon as Auster introduces this twist, the two narratives begin to relate in promising ways. But no. Brick commits adultery, and his creator kills him off.

The night is advancing, and soon there is a scratching at Brill's bedroom door. Katya is awake too, and she comes in for a chat. She wants to know what Brill's marriage was like. Yet even as he speaks at length, his story has the flavor of a synopsis. What's really important is Katya's secret, but this is a secret the reader doesn't yet know -- a dramatic, horrifying connection between Brill's family and the misbegotten Iraq war that none of them support.

But where is the rest of the novel? The revelation of Katya's secret should be more than a punch line; it should be the catalyst for a shift in the lives of the family members. The most Brill can come up with is to imagine leasing a camper and going on a road trip. What I would like him to do, once he defines the kernel of the problem, is to get up and go through the rest of the day. The novel as we have it is 180 pages. The gravity of Brill's concerns are well worth an additional 100 pages.

The great drawback of the novel as a form is that all serious dilemmas are as difficult to resolve on the page as they are in life, but readers like their characters to transform somehow in the course of the narrative. In "Man in the Dark," we have a beautiful setup concerning the intersection of the personal and the political. The Brills are good people, by and large, and not in imminent physical or moral danger. When Auster kills off Owen Brick and then ends August Brill's story with the coming of dawn, he backs away from really engaging with the dilemma he has set.

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