Double- plotting places writer in a half- baked dilemma
IT was naive to think that literary fiction, even high- end literary fiction, could resist for long the temptation to tackle the events of September 11, 2001. Norman Mailer’s advice to Jay McInerney — that he should wait ‘‘ at least 10 years to write about it’’ — went unheeded: The Good Life was published in 2006. Nor were other big- name authors able to escape its gravitational pull. Ian McEwan shot into print with Saturday in 2005, John Updike with Terrorist in 2006 and Don DeLillo with Falling Man in 2007.
The latest high- profile inductee to the post9/ 11 fiction club is DeLillo’s fellow New Yorker Paul Auster, though whether he should be granted full membership is a question the board may like to consider. For Man in the Dark is a post- 9/ 11 novel in which 9/ 11 hasn’t happened. Nor is the US at war in Iraq. Rather, it is at war with itself, several states having seceded from the union after the contentious 2000 election.
Or that, at least, is the tantalising premise of the story August Brill, 72, tells himself during the course of one night. A retired critic of some
Man in the Dark By Paul Auster Faber, 180pp, $ 29.95
distinction, Brill is recovering from a bout of alcoholism occasioned by the death of his exwife Sonia ( with whom he had reconciled, but they had not remarried) and a car accident quite possibly attributable to the alcoholism.
He is staying with his daughter, Miriam, 47 — an academic working on a book about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter, Rose — and his granddaughter, Katya, 23, whose husband, Titus, was recently murdered in horrifying circumstances. Brill has put aside a memoir and spends his days watching movies with Katya and his nights inventing unlikely stories in an effort to stave off darker thoughts.
One such is the story mentioned above, the Kafkaesque tale of Owen Brick, who wakes to find himself down a hole and wearing a soldier’s uniform. Such identification as is on him confirms that he is who he thinks he is: the date and place of birth are correct. He also knows he is married to Flora and that, until yesterday, he was a magician specialising in children’s birthday parties. Needless to say he’s a little confused.
‘‘ I go to bed with my wife in New York. We make love, we fall asleep, and when I wake up I’m lying in a hole in the middle of goddamned nowhere, dressed in a f . . king army uniform. What the hell is going on?’’
What, indeed! Brick, it appears, has been called up in order to fulfil a specific task. He is required to assassinate someone important. ‘‘ Who?’’ he asks, not unreasonably. A retired critic called August Brill. ‘‘ Why?’’ asks Brick, again with some justice. ‘‘ Because he owns the war. He invented it, and everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head. Eliminate that head and the war stops. It’s that simple.’’
Thus begins a rather silly caper in which Brick attempts to avoid the task to which he has been so unjustly assigned. The result is a sort of
literary Terminator with some heavy social commentary thrown in. The following exchange between Brick and Molly, a waitress straight out of Central Casting, will give the slightly hammy flavour: Now, if I said the words September 11 to you, would they have any special meaning? Not particularly. And the World Trade Centre? The twin towers? Those tall buildings in New York? Exactly. What about them? They’re still standing? Of course they are. What’s wrong with you? Nothing, Brick says, muttering to himself in a barely audible voice. Then, looking down at his half- eaten eggs, he whispers: One nightmare replaces another.
This is a familiar Auster theme: the writer as a creator god whose characters come unaccountably to life. His novel Travels in the Scriptorium ( 2007) features an author, Mr Blank, who is visited by his own creations; Oracle Night ( 2004) presents a writer whose notebook sucks him into its narrative. Something of a postmodernist staple ( though its most brilliant manipulator was Flann O’Brien, whose hilarious novel At Swim- Two- Birds was published in 1939), this plot device feels almost conventional and the reader may wonder what, if anything, is gained by pursuing it so singlemindedly.
Only when the story within the story gives way to the thoughts that Brill has been avoiding does Auster’s novel come alive. The double confession with which the book ends — a heartto- heart between Brill and Katya — is an emotional denouement of unusual power.
On the whole, however, I was disappointed. Man in the Dark can boast two narratives but it feels like only half a novel.
Richard King is a Perth- based critic.