Saturday, September 20, 2008

Holding Things Together

A brief note about Paul Auster's novel Man in the Dark: After finishing the book something about the form nagged at me so much that I couldn't sleep until I had read it all through again. It's a compact novel about telling stories: a fiction told to oneself to fight insomnia, stories shared about important women (sister, wife, daughter, granddaughter) in a man's life, stories about innocent men thrown into desperate and strange environments, the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter Rose (a failed poet, Rose changed the narrative of her own life and became a nun, founding an order dedicated to the care of incurable cancer patients).

Auster has always featured coincidence and parallels in his work, as phenomena that are sometimes essential to the narrative, sometimes peripheral, and sometimes uncertainly swinging between those two possibilities, but here he introduces a number of parallels which function at a formal level, holding the text — and the worlds imagined within it — together.

Here's one example of a parallel which seems a minor detail, but actually helps to sustain the structure of the whole novel: in a story told to himself, the narrator, August Brill, imagines a fictional America in which 9/11 does not take place, but instead, after the election of 2000, the nation separates and enters into civil war. Brill's hero in this story, a man travelling between timelines, is named Owen Brick. Later, Brill tells a story, set in the novel's (implicitly, our own) "real" time line about his own granddaughter's boyfriend, killed in (a post 9/11) Iraq while in the employ of a company named BRK.

(Similarly, Auster draws a parallel between a breakfast — which, in perhaps a small homage to Buñuel (Auster knows his films), repeatedly doesn't come — in Brick's war-torn timeline and the narrator's own full breakfast, which is to come sometime after the book ends.)

That coincidence of names (Brill, Brick, BRK) is surely no accident, but a perfectly crafted example of how real details infect and feed our imaginations, and sometime vice versa. Indeed, the very last words of the novel, quoting Rose Hawthorne's odd and wonderful line "as the weird world rolls on" are suitable closing words for each of timelines in the book, and certainly in our own as well.

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