A Civil War of the Soul
On superficial acquaintance, Paul Auster’s new novel, Man in the Dark, appears to be merely the latest strain in a recent pandemic of dystopian fantasies, in this instance an alternate history of America in which the 9/11 terrorist attacks never happened but something even worse did: A second American civil war.
In Auster’s parallel universe, the battle is joined not by the blue and the grey but rather by the Blue and the Red, as the bitterly disputed 2000 election degenerates into secession and an all-out battle for the Union. With 13 million dead and counting, the real-world election and its fusillades of lawsuits and partisan bomb-throwing suddenly seem terribly innocent in contrast to this ugly imagined world in which the only winner is gore.
But as it turns out, Auster is after something entirely different, in this haunting and beautifully crafted work, than speculative fiction. The dystopia isn’t Auster’s but rather his central character’s, August Brill, the titular “man in the dark”. Brill, a 72-year-old retired literary critic, is a deeply traumatized human husk who, like a character out of a Bergman movie, is sharing a house with his equally damaged and desperate daughter and granddaughter.
It is Brill who lies awake at night inventing this bloody conflict, and who imagines a baffled stand-in for himself named Owen Brick, a magician who knows nothing of war or politics, but who is dropped as if from the sky into a hole in the middle of a battleground, then dragged out by a soldier and dragooned into a role as an assassin. The shadowy group of conspirators who have captured Brick are trying to end the nation’s torment by forcing him against his will to assassinate the man who, in their view, has started the war and kept it alive in his head—in other words, Brill himself.
If all this seems a bit complex at the level of both storytelling and psychology, it is, but understandably so. For Brill’s own torment, and that of the women who share his house, is considerable. Brill is recovering from a crippling auto accident even as he battles—in this case “recovers” is clearly not the apposite term – with the recent death of his wife and of his granddaughter’s estranged husband, Titus. Brill’s struggle, then, isn’t only about his insomnia, or his accident, or his grief: It is about deciding whether he wants to live or die.
When Brill is not fighting his personal war between the states, he is obsessively watching old videos with his guilty and brokenhearted granddaughter Katya, who feels responsible for the fact that Titus took an ill-advised job in Iraq—and, most especially, for the fact that he paid a horrifying price for it.
Listening to these two wonderfully intelligent people analyze the visual symbolism in movies like Tokyo Story and The Bicycle Thief will make it difficult for the reader to ever again sit still for the smarmy and superficial reviews of most movie “critics” working today. But film isn’t what their conversations are about. As with Brill’s nighttime fantasies, they’re using the shadow-play of cinema to indirectly edge in the direction of considering their own traumas—because doing so directly is too painful.
The novel weaves in a number of other strands, including the story of Brill’s marriage to his late wife, which Brill recounts to Katya in beautiful and touching detail, a couple of harrowing tales of the Second World War, and the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s unhappy and aimless daughter Rose, the subject of a biography-in-progress by Brill’s own daughter Miriam.
None of this is ever anything less than absorbing, and all of it connects in weird but fitting ways to the main narrative strand. But all of it, as it turns out, is just a precursor for the horror that Brill and Katya have been avoiding all along: The manner in which Titus died in Iraq.
Without giving away too much of the story, I can say that, in preparation for this review, I viewed for the first time a genuinely terrifying true-life video I’d been assiduously avoiding for years. It will be obvious to you, after reading “Man in the Dark,” which video I am referring to, and why it is even more difficult for the main characters to view the somewhat fictionalized version featured in the novel.
Nonetheless, they do watch it, well before the events of the novel, and they “know it will go on haunting us for the rest of our lives, and yet somehow we felt we had to be there with Titus, to keep our eyes open to the horror for his sake ... so as not to abandon him to the pitiless dark that swallowed him up.”
This superb small novel isn’t, despite initial impressions, about war or politics at all. It is about, in the face of guilt and horror, choosing whether to die and how, if that is the choice, to live. It is, at heart, about the stratagems that we, but in particular our best novelists, devise as a means of keeping us going in the face of the “pitiless dark” that will swallow us all.