Paul Auster’s new metafictional fable Man in the Dark is getting the usual highly mixed reactions. I’ve read it and I think it’s one of his most satisfying books in years.
I’m a fan of classic 90s New York Trilogy-era Auster. Many years ago I called City of Glass my number one favorite novel of all time, and though I’ve read many other great novels since I may still feel this way. Following the Trilogy, I stuck with Auster through Moon Palace, Music of Chance, Hand to Mouth and Invention of Solitude but then finally fell off the bandwagon, my head spinning, between Leviathan and Oracle Night. I stopped reading his new books, but I never stopped loving his style.
I mainly like Man in the Dark because it feels like a return to vintage Auster — short, violent, pointed, a calm narrative voice hovering just above insanity. The fatal cuteness of Smoke and Brooklyn Follies is nowhere to be found. The story involves an aging book critic conjuring his own story about a civil war in contemporary America while lying awake at night worrying about his vulnerable family and about the war in Iraq. When Paul Auster pulls out one of his classic tricks — sending off a character to murder his author, introducing a Jessica-Rabbit seductress bearing important information, introducing a man who sickens his brain by reading too much — Auster fans will want to cheer the way fans at a Bob Dylan concert always cheer at the first sight of a harmonica. We can only apprehend Paul Auster through layers of self-reference these days — it comes with the territory, after all — and these internal references work to his favor in the latest work.
I don’t wish to try to grapple with the plot or meaning of Man in the Dark (that’s often a losing game with master-bluffer Paul Auster), but I will commend the author’s brisk dark humor, his tragic touch, his sensitive illuminations via characters who analyze classic films, and, as always, his smooth literary confidence. Man in the Dark is a powerful ride that leaves you, naturally, nowhere at all.
Ed Champion did dare to grapple with Auster in a recent Bat Segundo interview that comes complete with Champion’s own speculative metafictional introduction. Not surprisingly, Auster expresses blank amusement at most of Champion’s observations during their chat, pretending that any questions his books raise can be answered at face value. It is interesting to learn that Auster counts Rick Moody and Peter Carey among his few favorite contemporary writers, and that he avoids the internet with a near-religious fervor.
Beyond that, the main result of this interview is that the magician escapes, with an artistry that remains fascinating to observe.