Dou­ble- plot­ting places writer in a half- baked dilemma

Richard King

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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