We immediately identified with August Brill, the central figure in Paul Auster’s latest novel Man In the Dark because of the technique he employs when he can’t sleep. Like Brill, as we lie awake, we pursue a story line with us in the lead–let’s call them fantasies–and these fantastic, often repeated tales seem to calm us even if the scenarios involve physical exertion or violence (touchdown!). More often than not, these plots produce serotonin–or is it melatonin?–in quantities sufficient to induce sleep. For Brill, they’re just a way to pass the time. Our sleepless fantasies are more shallow (touchdown!) than Brill’s contemporary civil war in which he becomes the target of assassination from someone, probably him, sent from a contingent reality. Not that our kidnapped-by-beautiful-female-aliens plot line doesn’t have its contingencies. But Auster, in his typical style, uses Brill’s late night day dreams to plumb the depths of what’s real (most everything, thought included) and not (not much) and make points about violence, American politics and the power of infinite Gods. As with our sexy aliens, a high school sweetheart makes the balls of elder Brill’s alter ego burn.
We love the book for other reasons, too. That Brill is a retired book reviewer and not much of a writer has upset some reviewers. Others– Stephen Elliott in the San Francisco Chronicle –don’t even mention it. Tom LeClair, writing in the New York Times, uses Brill’s “banality” as a jumping off point for criticizing Auster’s earlier fiction. He writes that Brill’s insomnolence is only a “marginally interesting psychological realm” and drops hints that the book is a bad imitation of his earlier work. He suggests Auster’s next book might be a “fourth rate attack on literary agents.” Elliot, meanwhile, calls it “perhaps Auster’s best book.”
Our only quibble with Man In the Dark is that two-thirds of the way through, Brill kills off his fantasies to finish out the sleepless night considering his painfully-real history. It’s not so amazing to us that different readers, including ones as practiced as Elliott and LeClair (need we add that both are novelists?) come away from the same book with different amounts of venom and praise. In fact, when we read the kind of bitter criticism LeClair aims at Auster, we tend to think we’ve just found something we’ll like. The fact that criticism might reveal more of the critic than the subject is something that won’t cause us to lose sleep.–Cabbage Rabbit