“I am alone in the dark.” One of the more evocative existential opening lines. And it tells much about what follows. August Brill is 72, a Pulitzer Prize winning book critic who is confined to a wheelchair, and mourning the loss of his wife. While convalescing, he is living with his divorced daughter and his granddaughter, Katya, who is mourning the horrible death of her boyfriend in Iraq. We see the events of the story through Brill’s eyes. In attempting to overcome a bout of insomnia, and perhaps escape the dark place in which he finds himself, Brill concocts a story in his imagination, an alternate reality to the reader, reminding one of Tralfamador in Slaughterhouse Five
His alt-world is thinly made, a USA in which civil war erupted after Bush v Gore. If only. His imaginary protagonist is Corporal Owen Brick, a young magician who finds himself transformed into a soldier, worse, an assassin. The target of this assassination has a certain snake-devouring-it’s-own-tail appeal. Brick has relationships that parallel Brill’s and should serve to illuminate his creator’s reality. But it seemed to me that they did not offer much light.
Not a lot is made of Brick’s career in alt-world, but Brill refers to himself as a magician in real-world, regarding a difficult emotional balancing act.
The book almost demands multiple readings in order to peel back the layers. First, there is the surface. Brill is a man who is trying to cope with having suffered a great loss. That makes him sympathetic, garnering our interest. It turns out he is maybe not all that wonderful a person, which certainly loosens our connection. But his affection for his daughter and granddaughter, and his love for his late wife, leave us enough to keep some connection alive. I was most moved when Brill tells his granddaughter of his life with and love for his late wife.
Another layer is a question of the nature of our reality. Are we more real than the characters in a story? Why could we not, ourselves, be characters in someone else’s story?
by putting myself into the story the story becomes real. Or else I become unreal, yet one more figment of my own imagination.
Interesting stuff, if a bit like trying to read a popular science piece about string theory. Does that make God the ultimate author? Are we all characters in our own novels?
And why does this man deserve to die?
Because he owns the war. He invented it, and everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head. Eliminate that head and the war stops. It’s that simple.
Simple? You make him sound like God.
Not God, Corporal, just a man. He sits in a room all day writing it down, and whatever he writes comes true.
There are observations on the state of contemporary life as well, particularly the permanent war of 1984. Brill/Brick has been moving between realities:
How long has it been since you’ve been back on this side?
Fifteen years. This is my first trip. It wasn’t even possible until about three months ago. You were the first one to go back and forth. Did you know that?
No one ever told me anything.
It’s like stepping into a dream, isn’t it? The same place, but entirely different. America without war. It’s hard to digest. You get so used to the fighting, it kind of creeps into your bones, and after a while, you can’t imagine a world without it.
America’s at war. All right. We’re just not fighting it here. Not yet, anyway.
Wars figure prominently in the tale. There is the civil war in alt-world, the Iraq war in real-world, history told about World War II, and on a smaller scale, one conflict stands in for larger ones:
[In Newark during the 1967 riot] Not long after we returned to the mayor's office, in walked a member of the New Jersey State police, a certain Colonel Brand or Brandt, a man around forty with a razor-sharp crew cut, a square, clenched jaw and the hard eyes of a marine about to embark on a commando mission. He shook hands with [mayor] Addonizio, sat down in a chair, and then pronounced these words: We're gonna hunt down every black bastard in this city. I probably shouldn't have been shocked, but I was. Not by the statement, perhaps, but by the chilling contempt of the voice that uttered it...that was my war. Not a real war, perhaps, but once you witness violence on that scale, it isn't difficult to imagine something worse, and once your mind is capable of doing that, you understand that the worst possibilities of the imagination are the country you live in. Just think it, and the chances are it will happen.
Auster has some fun with names. The Molly Wald in alt-world is hardly the sweetheart of John Hughes fame. That Brill asks his granddaughter to call him Augie can hardly be pure coincidence. He tosses in references to Blake and Bloch as well.
Brill and Katya self-medicate to some classic foreign films, noting particularly how some directors use inanimate objects to convey emotional content. This leads one to look for that in the novel, but if it was present, I missed it.
I am not sure I liked this book, but I found it very thought-provoking, and may even go back and read it again. I got the feeling that there was much here that did not get through my dense hide.