What do you think about when you're alone in bed?
That question could easily be the beginning of several dirty jokes. But once you get past the middle school area of your brain--and on to the freshman psych portion--it opens up a field of rich personal information. What are the beautiful phrases that loop through your mind in the pitch black? What regrets gnaw at you? What dreams do you encourage, court, urge to come?
Paul Auster's new novel, Man in the Dark, steps into the dizzying tapestry of individual human consciousness and dances there. There is a certain solipsistic focus that comes from placing one's protagonist alone in a darkened room, talking to himself, but on the whole, the work does not feel narrow. This is due in large part to the expansive nature of the protagonist himself - August Brill, erstwhile literary critic and father of one, knows he is approaching the end of his life. But he isn't there yet - infirm, after a traumatic car accident, he is not yet enfeebled, and his mind skips over the library of books, experiences, fears, and images he has collected with ease and gusto. Lying in the dark of his daughter's house, he is unable to sleep and so must entertain and distract himself through the expanse of useless pre-dawn time that yawns before him.
Although Brill's mind is drawn magnetically towards his past, mostly to images of his recently deceased wife and to the violent death of his niece's boyfriend Titus, he urges himself to think up fantastical, unrelated stories out of a sense of self-preservation. There are, after all, things it's better not to remember when one is alone.
And so we are introduced to a character that Brill pulls out of the air: Owen Brick, a likeable magician from New York City who awakens to find himself dropped unceremoniously into the middle of a bizarro-America - unquestionably a reality that is parallel to Brick's own, but with obvious and unsettling differences. Here, the country is at war not with Iraq, but with itself, the Urban Archipelago having ceded from the red states. In the story that Brick recounts to himself, Brill has somehow been recruited by this alternate reality to help them end the interminable fighting - and here's the catch - by murdering the man who is imagining the war, telling it to himself as a somewhat chilling bedtime story. That man, unsurprisingly, is one August Brill.
One might be forgiven for having anticipated this twist early on; although Brick finds out his mission soon after awaking into perdition, he doesn't learn the name of his quarry until much later, leaving the question ripe for guesswork. But Brick's actions, his world, are not really intended to be opaque or autonomous, which is what saves the narrative from falling into a pale neo-Calvino style. For all the pomp of committing so much space to a somewhat antic story-within-a-story, Auster avoids slipping into the saccharine mimicry of a fiction more post-modern than his own.
Brill, despite his own best efforts, is not able to keep his mind on the task at hand - no matter how many demons he may invent to haunt himself, his resident ghosts maintain their dominance. He eventually tosses Brick aside, showing us just how flimsy a hold the character had over his existence, and how little danger the story's ersatz Brill was in. This is what lends the work its great interest - it is magically real, without tripping into magical realism; psychological, without dabbling overmuch in pop psychology. The best moments come when Brill is being honest, recounting to his grieving niece the tale of his youth, marriage, and the pitfalls of his life. Indeed, the depth of Brill's life story could, if drawn out, have easily supported a novel on its own. But by interspersing the factuality of Brill's existence with the tremulous overtones of his imagination, we get a fuller, fleshier vision of the man.
It is also this that makes Owen Brick's war so potent - its slight distance from us, coupled with its proximity to Brill's own fears. The novel ends up being more than a portrait of an individual, sketching alongside him the nervous climate of a nation, and all those things we prefer to keep collectively unconscious.