Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

James Wood once wrote of Paul Auster:
What Auster often [writes] … is the worst of both worlds: fake realism and shallow skepticism. The two weaknesses are related. Auster is a compelling storyteller, but his stories are assertions rather than persuasions. They declare themselves; they hound the next revelation. Because nothing is persuasively assembled, the inevitable postmodern disassembly leaves one largely untouched.
There is a great deal of truth in this. Although Auster is a dazzling writer, there is often something unfulfilling about his work, a sense of “so what”? Don DeLillo occasionally falls into the same territory, as did Donald Barthelme before them. The tricksiness of the postmodern posturing can overwhelm the narrative so that any pathos that might have been generated is dissipated. At least, that’s what I would normally say in a critique of Paul Auster. But not about Man in the Dark, his 2008 novel responding to American involvement in the Iraq war. Certainly, what we have here is classic Auster postmodernism but, where the tricks usually detract from the emotional resonance, here they work to wonderful effect. This is a sad novel which is moving and thought-provoking in equal measure.

We are in a “house of grieving wounded souls”. The narrator, 72 year old reviewer August Brill, is still mourning the death from cancer of his wife, Sonia. He has also suffered a shattered leg in a recent car crash and is bed bound. His 47 year old daughter, Miriam, has divorced and is chronically unhappy, having “slept alone for five years”. His granddaughter, Katya, 23, has suffered the traumatic loss of her boyfriend, a contractor in Iraq during the war who was abducted by terrorists and decapitated, this appalling act being recorded and posted on the internet. To lose loved ones to such insanity is bad enough: to be forced to watch it happen is unbearable. The family has fallen into, if not dysfunction, then certainly a profound melancholy. Insomnia oppresses both Brill and his granddaughter, and they compensate by watching films together, dozens of them, one after the other, three or four at a time. Sleeplessness is the family’s unhappy default. It is a desperate, painful situation.

Auster embarks on a typical foray into the postmodern, as the miserable and sleep-deprived Brill fills those dark, empty hours by inventing an alternative world in which America has descended into Civil War, the global war on terror made frighteningly local. California has ceded from the Union; so have fifteen other states. The Twin Towers are intact, but cities across America huddle beneath warfare between the newly federated states and the rump of the old USA. 80,000 people have died. Everything is fractured. Into this dystopia is thrust Brill’s character, Owen Brick. This unfortunate children’s entertainer goes to sleep in the America we know today, and wakes up in a hole in the ground in the other America, and finds himself part of a hideous, Hitchcockian plot. The war, he is told, has been invented by a single man, identified as August Brill, who is sitting in his home in Vermont and creating all this carnage. All the deaths are his responsibility, the bombing, the devastation. If Brick can kill him, then the horror that has befallen this version of America will cease. That, then, is his job: to assassinate Brill. But Brill, of course, in this postmodern flight of fancy, is Brick’s own creator. How can one kill the person who is manipulating you all along? Can the puppet turn on the puppet-master? We therefore find ourselves in a typically Austerian maze of impossibilities and fights with logic. All of this is designed to force us to consider the nature of truth and responsibility.

It is here that, so often in postmodernism, the story loses touch with the theme that presumably provoked the author to write it in the first place. The trick becomes everything; the words and the plot become self-serving, solipsistic, ultimately shallow. The reader ends up not caring: neither about the characters nor the situation nor the theme. In Man in the Dark, however, Auster avoids this descent into the banality of mere inventiveness. He does it by the most direct means possible, by returning us to the immediacy of the family crisis that originally provoked all of this carnage. Brill recounts to his granddaughter a moment when he came upon his wife unexpectedly and found her praying. He hadn’t known she had any belief, and she was embarrassed about it. But he relates her explanation:

She was walking down the street one afternoon... when all of a sudden a feeling of joy rose up inside her, an inexplicable, overwhelming joy. It was as if the entire universe were rushing into her body, she said, and in that instant she understood that everything was connected to everything else, that everyone in the world was connected to everyone else in the world, and this binding force, this power that held everything and everyone together, was God. That was the only word she could think of. God. Not a Jewish or Christian God, not the God of any religion, but God as the presence that animates all life.
Later, with all that happens to the family, she loses her faith in God the entity but the notion of a combined human spirit remained with her, and it remains in this novel, and it informs its beautiful final thirty pages or so. This godness that she experiences is undoubtedly Feuerbachian, and it is probably akin to the idea of, in Rudolf Otto’s phrase, the numinosum, the numinous spirit that pervades all human activity. There is, after all, something beautiful and utterly mysterious in life. And so, at the climax of the novel, the numinosum takes us out of postmodern imaginative flights of fancy into the corrosive confines of grief. It hurts. It bites. It lingers. We feel for Brick, a hack writer with no feel for plot or character, and we understand that his ordeal is oppressive, unceasing, and that his silly dystopian plot can never help assauge the pain that binds this family so tightly together. All of the action in this short novel takes place in a long, horrible, horrifying night. We feel it, we understand it. A fragile piece of humanity reaches out in search of companionship, succour, support. The reader wants to respond. The compact is made. It is beautiful.

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