An old man lies in the dark, lonely and in pain, and tells himself stories about another world, so he won't have to think about this one.
A young man finds himself mysteriously thrust into a war-torn United States — a place where the 9/11 attacks never happened and a civil war has left 13-million dead. To his utter bafflement, he is assigned to commit an assassination. He must kill a certain stranger, an officer tells him: "Because he owns the war. He invented it, and everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head."
Those two parallel universes entwine and collide in Man in the Dark, Paul Auster's masterful, big-hearted metafiction about love, loss and the power of storytelling.
The old man in the dark is August Brill, a retired book critic — a man whose life has revolved around stories, which sustain him now that cancer has killed his beloved wife, Sonia, and he is recovering from a crippling car wreck.
Brill says he "certainly never had any ambitions to write a book. I liked to read them, that was all, to read books and then write about them afterward."
He protests too much; Brill is a powerful storyteller. Owen Brick, the young man in the dark about why he is suddenly a soldier, is Brill's invention, and the eerie, Kafkaesque story Brill plunges him into is so compelling the reader almost forgets about the storyteller himself.
It dominates the first part of this compact, powerful novel — a sparely written, enigmatic story about Brick's struggle not just to save himself and his pregnant wife but to grasp the new reality he has tumbled into.
But Brill's fantastical invention is not so far from the stories that emerge about his own life. As Man in the Dark builds to a stunning conclusion, its many stories — real memories, invented narratives and the slippery ground between the two — foreshadow and reflect and inform each other in a dark and dazzling web.
Brill is not the only one telling stories in "a house of grieving, wounded souls." Upstairs are his daughter, Miriam, a literature professor still reeling from a divorce several years before, and his granddaughter, Katya, who is nearly paralyzed with sorrow after the recent violent death of her boyfriend, Titus.
Miriam tries to counter her depression by writing a book about Rose Hawthorne, the not-very-talented daughter of that seminal American storyteller of darkness, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Katya has dropped out of college, where she was studying filmmaking, and spends her days on the couch with her grandfather, watching movie after movie. Just as Brill's fictional love-and-war stories are a distraction from real-life ones, Katya's movies shield her from the images of a video too horrific to remember.
It's Katya's insomniac arrival in her grandfather's room that steers the book from Brick's bizarre adventure to Brill's story of his long relationship with Sonia, whom he now calls "the ever-present absent one."
His story only goes so far. He tells Katya the tale of his and Sonia's courtship and early marriage in enchanting detail, but he does not delve into Sonia's death or his own near-fatal (maybe intentional?) accident afterward.
He does talk about the affair with a younger woman that caused Sonia to divorce him, and how they reunited years later. His transgression has its echo in the breakup of Miriam's marriage because of a younger woman: "Beware of men in their forties," Brill warns.
As heartbreaking as Sonia's death and Miriam's divorce are, they are the kinds of losses everyone suffers sooner or later. There is comfort in their very familiarity; they are stories we have heard a thousand times.
Not so the death of Titus. It is the terrible, uncontrollable story that Brill is avoiding with his invented war, that Katya is avoiding with those endless movies.
Brill had known Titus all his life. "His parents named him after Rembrandt's son, the little boy of the paintings, the golden-haired child in the red hat."
Titus grows up into a goofy, affable young man with wild red hair and an ambition to become a writer, although maybe not the talent. He is opposed to the war in Iraq, but several years after it begins he startles everyone by going there.
He tells Brill he's driven by his desire to write, to have stories to tell. "I haven't done anything. That's why I'm going away. To experience something that isn't about me."
What happens to Titus is the story that Katya cannot bear to tell yet, that Brill can hardly face, although they know exactly — too exactly — how he died.
Stories don't just tell us how things happened, but why, and how we can live with love and without it. In Man in the Dark, Auster, that maestro of narrative, gives us a brilliant and beautiful example.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.