Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark

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.

9 Responses

  1. I normally wouldn’t post
    I normally wouldn’t post this, but how amazing is The New York Trilogy! I read Music of Chance too, but it was hard to imagine it even came from the same source. As for the rest of Auster, the books just don’t sound as good. City of Glass would have been more at home in a Borges collection. Another author who, I think, writes in a similar style is Steven Millhauser. His stories and novels leave you with a very interesting feeling that doesn’t end when the book does. If you haven’t read it, I would look into Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. One of my favorite New York books (along with Winters Tale by Mark Helprin, which is amazing).

    Hmm. Looks like I’m off to read City of Glass.

  2. What’s metafiction?

    Meta is
    What’s metafiction?

    Meta is thrown around a lot these days. Metadata, metainfo.

    Are the Series of Unfortunate Events books metafiction?

    My antispam word is associated with METAmorphesis.

    Way back in the day the late crazy John Lilley talked about METAprogramming the human biocomputer.. That was a long time ago, in the 70’s.

    I’d forgotten, but Wikipedia reminded me of the Godel Escher Bach writer who was so poular in the late 70’s early 80s. He wrote METAmagicical Themas. That was about the same time Lilley was spewing forth his nonsense as well.

    These two should get the blame for this deluge of


    that is all around, for popularizing the term which slowly grew in use over decades until now.

    Please keep in mind this is a metacomment and I enjoyed reading your post, Levi, on Auster on this metamoring. Have a metaday you all.

    I actually think it comes from the term metamucil.

    latin me that, you trinity scholard! (James Joyce)

  3. Rubiao, I had a similar
    Rubiao, I had a similar experience. A few months ago, Levi made City of Glass sound so good, I went searching for it at the library near my home. It was checked out already so I got Music of Chance instead. That book was okay, but nothing like what I expected. I guess it’s time to reserve City of Glass again. The thing is, I just picked up Veniss Underground by Jeff Vandermeer, which I’ve been wanting to read, too. There aren’t enough hours in the day to read everything I want to read!

    TKG, I’m not sure if you are asking a meta-retorical question, so I hope you don’t mind if I toot my own metterhorn and provide a link to this thang I wrote.

  4. Hi Biil,

    My comments were
    Hi Biil,

    My comments were not metaphorical. I wasn’t sure exactly what metafiction is supposed to be. Thanks for pointing me to your piece here. I remember reading it when it was first posted and I read it again last night.

    Breaking the fourth wall I know. Off the top of my head I can think of examples in movies such as the sequeal to the Three Little Pigs by Disny called The Big bad Wolf, in the scene where the wolf is pretending to be Little Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother in bed the wold turns to the audience, cups his mouth so Little Red Riding Hood won’t her and asks, “How am I doing”? Tweety-bird would always ask, “he don’t know me vewy well, do he?”

    I wonder if the Great Train Robbery film of 1903 counts as metafiction due to the last scene where the robber turns and takes aim directly aqt the audience with his pistol and shoots. It’s always said that audiences would scream out in fear at that last scene in the film.

    It’s interesting to think how it can be applied to writing. Wikipedia says Cervantes’ Don Quixote is metafiction. That’s an awfully old book.

    I ask if the Lemony Snicket books were metafiction. It would seem that they are because the narrator, Lemony Snicket is obvioulsy made up and he addresses the reader.

    All sorts of books, especially older style, would have the writer directly address the reader with terms such as “dear reader…” or “gentle reader…” So the fourth wall is broken for sure in that it is clear one is reading a book by a writer as opposed to directly experiencing a story.

    Literary fiction almost by default is metafiction. Fourth wall is broken overtly many times, dear lit kicks readers, in a huge percentage of all novels ever written. And if not, the mere form, e.g. the common third person omniscient narrator, rather breaks any fourth wall.

    Perhaps metafiction as used is also meant to mean surrealistic. Film within a film, book within a book. Python did this in the Holy Grail in the part where the roundtable knights were saved by the animator drawing the monster chasing them had a fatal heart attack.

    et cet.

    I want to now read this Auster book but I’ll bet it is one of them high priced hard back books.

    Ay caramba, Auster!

    Metathanks Bill, and meta to Levi too. I agree with earlier commenters that you made me interested in Auster (all I’ve ever read is part of Hand to Mouth, though, which I enjoyed).

    I also appreciate and find interesting your description of how Auster wouldn’t take the bait and kept everything at face value in that interview. There’s that famous quote from kerouac about fame which he said was like old newspapers blowing down Bleeker street.

  5. TKG, I get books from the
    TKG, I get books from the public library all the time. Even if they don’t have it, you can request it, either in person or by internet. I log on to the public library’s website, search for the book I want, and click “place a hold on this book.” They even ask me which branch I want to pick it up at (We have about 20 branches all over town). If they don’t have the book at all, in most cases they will order a copy from the publisher.

    I don’t really think of Lemony Snicket as metafiction, but who’s to say? It’s a fine line. Like you said, when I think of metafiction, I think of it as somewhat surreal, like it’s floating between worlds or something.

  6. Metathanks Bill.

    I don’t
    Metathanks Bill.

    I don’t know about labels. In fact I kind of hate them. I think they are extremely limiting in most cases and defeat their very valuable instrinsic, dare I say meta-, purpose. Metapurpose is to enhance understanding and ability to communicate within the context of understanding a non-simple concept.

    A label can have the opposite effect of unintended simplification.

    As far as metafiction, is it a genre label? A style lable? A label for a literary philosophy?

    Your stories are metafiction as far as I can tell. Why? How so?

    Metapod is a pokemon.

  7. I might have implied that
    I might have implied that metafiction is the same as “breaking the 4th wall” but that is not really accurate. One might say that breaking the 4th wall is one possible characteristic of metafiction. I found THIS and THIS helpful and fun to read.

  8. I don’t want to broach
    I don’t want to broach through the walls of meta-text being constructed here, I think they’re quite sturdy, and charming. But I couldn’t help thinking about another moment of “meta,” if the word can be used in so many contexts – a moment in this Paul Auster interview where he talks about reading a review for Man in the Dark, which certainly breaks some fourth wall of literary criticism between critic and writer that one never really imagines being broached

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