Friday, March 27, 2009

MAN IN THE DARK: Paul Auster takes a nap

Paul Auster desires to be a cross between Don DeLillo and Borges, which is to say that he desires the cool surface of the DeLillo's beaut fully managed tone and Borges genius for making the inane become suffused with an nether worldly sublimity. It works , at times, as in the novels that comprise the "New York Trilogy", his novel "Leviathan" and more recently his masterpiece from a few years back "Book of Illusion"; the way he uses the element of chance in his narratives can at times be one of the keener miracles of American writing. Auster, though, is a man of limited style and a set of ideas that have very nearly played themselves out, as we see here in "Man in the Dark". A small-time professor and book reviewer , recovering at his daughter's house after a horrific auto accident, spends much of his time watching movies and lying in the dark, imagining movies of his own, in this case a narrative of an alternative America that is being torn apart by a civil war. The elements here get very convoluted, and those familiar with Auster's favorite devices will sense the writer just a shade bored with his inventions and his borrowings.What you could see coming up in this tale was the eventuality that somehow this man in the dark, the imagining invalid, will have to confront the protagonist of the very tale he's concocting as he lies there. Tension is supposed to start here, the twist is supposed to make the skin tighten and the fingers eagerly seek the next page, but these are conventional turns in an Auster manuscript. When he's taken with a set of ideas, he can make incredible coincidences believably take a reader on a trek launched by sheer caprice. Man in the Dark's action seems engineered at best. The spare, evocative style that is the writer's trademark hardly rises above a monotone. Narratives, real and imagined, twine together in such a way that we're supposed to ask which is real and what his false until we are brought to a relief, although the only relief to be had here is not from the novel's building tension, which is slack, but from the tedium that ensues. That's a feet for a book that isn't even two hundred pages long. I was a bit disappointed by this novel, less for witnessing the decline of someone who was once a reliable provocative writer and more because he repeats his good ideas here without grace, snap , or variation worth noting. This was the draft you're supposed to throw away,not submit to your publisher.


  1. I was sad to read this review of a writer I have a degree of appreciation for. I recall asking you once to name a modern equivalent to Sherwood Anderson. You suggested Auster for that role and, in terms of his feel for the mysteries lurking in the ordinary, it seemed to fit. But it appears that Auster has shrunk and lost his sense of adventure over time, whereas Anderson (in his own often clumsy but well-meaning fashion) continued to reach out to the world and react to changes he saw around him until he died. Auster seems to be at the very least a good stylist, so I suppose there is hope. Meanwhile, I am still waiting for the second coming of Sherwood...

  2. I remember that conversation, and I still think it's a good fit. Anderson, though, didn't seem to me to approach the ordinary with the same methods , time and again; he was too much of a naturalist. Robert Altman would be a good film comparison. Auster, with a wonderful surface style, is more a formalist, like Brian dePalm as a director showing off his Hitchcock moves each chance out. I think, though, Auster will write more good books, maybe brilliant ones. I just wish he wouldn't publish every damn thing that comes from his keyboard.

  3. Actually, I've come to believe that if Sherwood Anderson reincarnated, it was as Raymond Carver. The same dreaminess and underlying sense of mercy is there, even if Carver is more quizzical in a modern smart-guy way. What say you?

  4. Anderson could play more notes on his instrument than could Carver, I think. The late RC made me think of someone who was trying to be chintzier with his qualifiers than Hemingway. That leaves him with a limited range to express mood and emotion--the muted tone of Carver's stories is singularly without joy. Depression and utility closet despair seem the only emotions he knew intimately and he didn't seem interested in trying anything different. Auster is an inconsistent novelist, but one does have to credit him with attempting methods other than those he's best known for, especially in the books "Mr.Vertigo", written in an interesting 20's Americana vernacular, or in "Timbuktu", which tells a story from a dog's point of view when the creature realizes his master is dying and that he must find a new one. Sherwood Anderson wasn't a brilliant stylist, having a manner that was closer to Sinclair Lewis than William Faulkner,but he did have great sympathy for his characters, a diverse lot that occupied Winesburg, Ohio. Although is style lacked elegance , it had finess, and his ability fully imagine the experience of fictional characters unlike him gives credence, I think, to the claim that his story collection is "An American 'Dubliners"".


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