(Jump over to read a review of Invisible)
(Jump down to read a review of Travels in The Scriptorium)
"Man in the Dark"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 29, 2008)
“The real and the imagined are one. Thoughts are real, even thoughts of unreal things. Invisible stars, invisible sky….Bedtime prayers, the rituals of chldhood, the gravity of childhood. If I should die before I wake. How fast it all goes. Yesterday a child, today an old man, and from then until now, how many beats of the heart, how many breaths, how many words spoken and heard? Touch me someone. Put your hand on my face and talk to me…”
August Brill, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic, now a depressed widower confined to a wheelchair, spends much of each night lying awake, thinking about his life and creating stories to keep himself amused. Living with his divorced daughter Miriam and his granddaughter Katya in Brattleboro, Vermont, August has not been very diligent about reading the book his daughter is writing, and for which she has sought his advice, and he has made no progress at all writing his own book, a memoir which he has hoped to leave to posterity. The closest he gets to sharing his ideas these days is watching film after film with his granddaughter Katya, talking about how filmmakers use objects as symbols to convey human emotions.
In the ironically titled Man in the Dark, each person is in the dark, searching for identity and the meaning of life and love. But each is also trying to reconcile his/her present life with the accidents of history which have made life what it is. The death of Sonia, August’s wife, and his own accident have left him dependent on Miriam. Miriam’s abandonment by her husband has left her vulnerable and responsible for the household, and Katya is almost paralyzed from the death of her lover, and her feeling that she did not love him enough. All feel like failures.
This absurdist novel gains excitement—and a major portion of its plot—each night in the dark, when August, sleepless, invents characters living different kinds of lives in an alternative reality—one so close to our own reality that its plausibility becomes frightening. August, in his imagination, has flashed back to the year 2000, which was the beginning of the second Civil War in the United States.
In this reality, the election of 2000 led to riots and the demand to abolish the Electoral College, and eventually it precipitated the secession of New York from the United States. New York was joined by all the New England states, New Jersey, and eight Midwestern states, which formed the Independent States of America. California, Oregon, and Washington formed another nation called Pacifica, and all are fighting George Bush and the Federals. The attack on the World Trade Center did not occur because the country was already at war.
The novel opens with Owen Brick, a young man dressed in fatigues, trapped in a deep hole with smooth sides, unable to escape. He has no idea where he is or how he got there, but he has been selected by his army superiors to do a job—to assassinate the man who created the war. Brick soon discovers that he is in Wellington, Massachusetts, formerly Worcester, Massachusetts, where he learns about the nature of the war and the conditions of the country. Though he tries to avoid his mission (and gets severely beaten as a reminder), he cannot. Eventually, he learns that the creator of the war is August Brill, who also created him.
Auster’s book is thoughtful, and he has much to say about writing and its ability to create reality, but it is also suspenseful, exciting, and a great deal of fun. Sly humor peeks through much of the alternative reality plot line (which ends, unfortunately, two-thirds of the way through the book), and the ironic twists and turns on several levels of reality keep the reader completely entertained. The characters grow as they reveal their pasts and their family histories as part of their searches for identity, and the reader develops empathy for them, even those like Owen Brick, who lives in the alternative reality. “I don’t like this,” he cries. “Someone’s inside my head. Not even my dreams belong to me. My whole life has been stolen,” he wails, in one of the novel’s ironies.
The horrors of war are always at hand, however, in all the realities—the on-going battles in the war between the Independent states and the Federals, and in the histories of the real characters like Brill and his friends. Scenes of horror from World War II to Iraq infuse the lives of the real characters, adding depth to Auster’s themes. Gradually, however, some of the characters begin to develop human connections to each other, and the conclusion, despite the characters’ emotional wounds, is far more hopeful than the beginning. Intense and clever, Auster’s novel examines important issues of war, reality, and identity—and does so in fewer than two hundred pages.
- Amazon readers rating: from 71 reviews
"Travels in the Scriptorium"
(Reviewed by Leland Cheuk FEB 12, 2007)
“The old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out of his knees, head down, staring at the floor…His mind is elsewhere, stranded among the figments in his head as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him.
Who is he? What is he doing here? When did he arrive and how long will he remain?”
Paul Auster’s thirteenth novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, could well be titled Paul Auster’s Greatest Hits. It’s a welcome break from his recent string of turgid and depressing novels like The Book of Illusions (2002) and Oracle Night (2004). Many of Auster’s narrative trademarks are on display in Travels in the Scriptorium: cameos from recurring characters, a Kafkaesque premise and a plot that ultimately spirals in on itself, leaving the reader to untangle. Auster’s thirteenth book turns out to be a worthy synopsis of his first twelve, an excellent place to start for those who haven’t read one of America’s most prolific and under-celebrated authors.
The old man is Mr. Blank and he awakens, disoriented, in a room without a view. He remembers few if any details of his past. To decode his identity, all he has are a few photographs, a manuscript and lingering feelings of inexpiate guilt. One by one, people from his past enter the room. The first is his caretaker, Anna Blume (a reference to the protagonist in Auster’s 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things). Mr. Blank recognizes Anna immediately and knows with certainty that he loves her. He remembers sending her on dangerous missions to foreign nations thirty years before. But what kind of missions? Why were they dangerous? Anna doesn’t say, very possibly because Mr. Blank wouldn’t remember anyway in his deteriorating mental state. Or does she keep quiet for the purposes of Mr. Blank’s mysterious “treatment,” administered by his even more mysterious captors? The relationship between Anna and the old man is the novel’s most poignant and Mr. Blank is made real by his valiant struggle against the ravages of age.
Less successful is the manuscript the old man reads, ostensibly to find out who he is and what he’s done. It’s a fable involving a country called the Confederation and it tells the story of the country’s war against the Alien Territories and the adventures of an operative named Sigmund Graf. Auster’s book-within-a-book device is a blunt instrument, used solely to pound home well-worn themes of the cost of imperialism. The allegory might have worked had it been conceived more originally. As it is, it reads like a Cliff Notes version of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. It takes up a good fifth of Travels in the Scriptorium, too much of what amounts to a large novella.
But the manuscript waiting beneath the life of Sigmund Graf, also entitled Travels in the Scriptorium, saves the novel, tying the plot into a neat postmodern bow and crystallizing Auster’s narrative Rubix Cube. While Travels in the Scriptorium is not Auster’s best novel, like his best work, it will keep you thinking long after the final page.
- Amazon readers rating: from 51 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The New York Trilogy (1987)
- City of Glass (1985) (graphic novel )
- Ghosts (1986)
- The Locked Room (1986)
- In the Country of Last Things (1987)
- Moon Palace (1989)
- The Music of Chance (1990)
- Leviathan (1992)
- Auggie Wren's Christmas Story (1992)
- Mr. Vertigo (1994)
- Timubuktu (1999)
- The Book of Illusions (2002)
- Oracle Night (2004)
- The Brooklyn Follies (2005)
- Travels in the Scriptorium (2006; 2007 in US)
- Man in the Dark (2008)
- Invisible (2009)
- Sunset Park (2010)
- The Art of Hunger (1982)
- The Invention of Solitude (1982)
- The Red Notebook: True Stories (1995)
- Why Write (1996)
- Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure (1997)
- The Story of My Typewriter (2002)
- Collect Prose: Autobiographical Writings, True Stories, Critical Essays, Prefaces & Collaborations with Artists (2003)
- Winter Journal (2012)
- Here and Now: Letters (2008-2011) (March 2013)
- Report from the Interior (November 2013)
- Smoke (1995)
- Blue in the Face (1995)
- Lulu on the Bridge (1998)
- The Center of the World (2001)
- The Inner Life of Martin Frost (2006)
Movies from Books:
- The Music of Chance (2003)
- In the Country of Last Things (2007)
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- Official website for the Paul Auster
- Wikipedia page on Paul Auster
- Guardian Unlimited page on Paul Auster and article by the author
- Columbia College article on Paul Auster
- Salon.com interview with Paul Auster (1999)
- Guardian Unlimited review of Travels in the Scriptorium
- Henry Holt page on Man in the Dark
- The New York Times review of Man in the Dark
- MostlyFiction.com review of Invisible
- MostlyFiction.com review of Sunset Park
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About the Author:
Paul Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. He is the author of numerous novels, screenplays, and works of non-fiction. He is also a poet, translator and film director.
He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, the author Siri Hustvedt. Their daughter Sophie Auster, born in 1987, is a singer and actress.