Originally Published: 2008
Though Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark weighs in at a mere 180 pages, it attempts to tackle some heavy hitting subject. War, loss, love, death. Auster shoehorns them all into this slim volume. He does so, primarily, by using the story within a story construct. This also allows Auster to explore the nature of narrative, and the way stories, no matter how fanciful and seemingly escapist, really reflect our own inner concerns and issues.
The story unfolds over the course of a single night during which the main character, August Brill, lies awake in his bed, battling with his usual bout of insomnia. Brill, a 72 year-old widower of sorts, saddled with a gimp leg and a lifetime of regrets, fears the memories that might come for him in the darkness. To keep them at bay, he tells himself stories. Brill says, “That’s what I do when sleep refuses to come. I lie in bed and tell myself stories….they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget.”
Brill attempts to use the stories as a dam against the flood of memories that threaten to drown him. Those waters swirl with darkness and death which he fears to face. They include the death of his granddaughter’s boyfriend, Titus, in Iraq, his daughter’s divorce, which nearly broke her, and his own wife’s death, which still haunts him.
Brill has moved into his daughter’s home after a drunken car accident left him with a bum leg. His granddaughter, Katya, has dropped out of school and also moved in after Titus’s murder (the details of which we don’t learn until the very end of the book). The house is really more of a hospital, filled with broken spirits trying to avoid the brutal, battering world. The patients serve also as nurses and caretakers for one another, but some of the patients are not interested in healing.
Brill’s storytelling encompasses most of the book. His tale opens with a man waking to find himself in a dark hole, with no memory of how he got there and no way to get himself out. From above, the man, Brill names him Owen Brick, can hear the sounds of war. After spending the night underground, someone comes to fetch him from his hole. Upon surfacing, Brick finds himself cast as a unwilling participant in the fighting of a civil war. Over time Brick discovers an old high school crush, Virginia Blaine, has summoned him to this parallel world in which America is at war with itself after the 2000 presidential elections. Brick, after much disorientation and confusion, eventually receives a mission, to kill the cause of the war, the cause of all this death. A man from Brick’s own world who spends his sleepless nights weaving war stories to entertain himself. A man named August Brill.
The story Brill tells himself, of course, brings him face to face with much of what he hopes to escape. We learn, as Brill’s own thoughts interrupt his narrative and, later, Katya wakes and cajoles Brill into telling the story of his complicated marriage, that Brick serves as a parallel for Brill. Besides how Brick’s name echoes Brill’s own, Virginia Blaine, the woman Brick had a crush on in high school. has the same name as Brill’s first love. Brick’s wife, Flora shares a foreign birth with Brill’s wife Sonia. On a thematic level, the civil war into which Blaine has drafted Brick, mimics the war raging within Brill himself. A war in which he pits his desire to remember against his desire to forget, his yearning to live against his yearning for death, his need for love against his feeling of self-loathing. These conflicts, it seems, are playing out in all the characters.
“As the weird world rolls on.” This becomes Brill’s motto. His daughter, Miriam, is writing a book about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter, Rose, who, after spending her life as “an insignificant, unhappy person” underwent a kind of metamorphosis. Rose experienced a religious awakening, took orders in the Catholic church and became a nun. She spent the rest of her life caring for those dying of cancer. At some point in her life, she had dabbled in poetry, and of all her verse, Brill finds only one line that he likes: “As the weird world rolls on.”
In part, the book serves as a recognition that we must live our lives in the face of enormous tragedy. War, death, divorce. They might stop us from living, but only temporarily. For whether we like it or not, “the weird world rolls on.” The future becomes the present becomes the past. In fact, Auster seems to suggest that our attempts to stand still, to stop our own involvement in life by pulling away or dropping out, are only illusions. The years tick by, we grow older, we pile up more life behind us. At the end of the book, after conceding to his granddaughter’s wishes to hear his life’s story, Brill finds a few moments of sleep. Upon waking, he is hungry for a big breakfast and suggests they all go out. Brill, who has worried over Katya dropping out of school after Titus’s death, encouraging her to return to her studies, now acknowledges that even his own weird life must roll on.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel. Auster writes with a pared down and simple style which comes across as conversational yet elegant. He paces the book well, so you cover its 180 pages briskly, though there are a few speed bumps along the way. The hardest to get over is Brill’s conversation with Katya near the end of the book, in which he acquiesces to her request to share the story of his relationship with his wife, her grandmother, Sonia. The whole section just doesn’t ring true to me. It seems filled with subtly tweaked clichés which fail to come alive. For instance, Brill remembers the exact date and time he first laid eyes on Sonia while walking through the streets of New York City. He fails to make contact but he can’t stop thinking about her, saying “The gods had tricked me, and the girl I was destined to fall in love with…had been snatched away….” Of course though, a month later, he runs into her on the subway after she takes the seat next to him because it was the only remaining one open. Now Auster, from what I’ve been told, often explores the nature of coincidence in our lives, but this just feels lazy and a bit ham-handed. The rest of the conversation has a rehearsed, wooden feel to it, and the back and forth between Brill and Katya remains stiff. Though they seem to have quite the intimate relationship (Katya crawls into bed with her grandfather, she asks about his sex life with her grandmother, wanting specifics, to which Brill responds “The body has a limited number of orifices. Let’s just say that we explored every one of them.”) somehow this closeness doesn’t come through in the dialogue.
Another aspect of the novel which left me unsatisfied was the ending to Owen Brick’s story. Upon reflection, though, this may be the point, as Auster seems to suggest that so many things in our lives end sans satisfaction- Miriam’s marriage, Titus’s life, the American presidential election of 2000. I suppose all this harkens back to the title. When it comes to how things will end, man is truly in the dark. Because our futures remain hidden by time, we all live in ignorance. We can tell ourselves stories to keep our fears at heel, but eventually the present becomes the past as it gives way to the future, and our ending is revealed-regardless of whether it’s the one we’ve been telling ourselves or not…