Enlightenment in the Darkness—Review: Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

I am a sucker for a snappy book cover, and the cover for Paul Auster’s new novella, Man in the Dark, is about as snappy as I’ve seen in a long time.

But, as you may recall, there’s a well-worn adage about books and covers.

Man in the Dark, a thin volume only eight-and-a-half inches tall and not quite six inches wide, caught my eye with its leafy, mulchy , concretey artwork, beautifully embossed and glossed and splashed with just the right dash of stars-and-stripes color.

It’s hard to capture an impression. But the book made one. The text on the inside flap drew me in even more. This cover had me, book, first line, and sinker.

I should really, really know better by now.

Man in the Dark hardly delivers on anything its cover promises.

That said, the novella is a quiet, elegant exploration of the loneliness that comes from physical and emotional isolation. It’s a beautiful little book (its cover notwithstanding).

At the center is 72-year-old August Brill, a bed-ridden convalescent recovering from a car accident. The lingering pain keeps him awake at night, and so he lies in bed, in the dark, and tells himself stories. “That’s what I do when sleep refuses to come. I lie in bed and tell myself stories,” he says. “They might not add up to much, but as long as I’m inside them, they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget.”

Brill’s wife had died not long before his car crash, and he’s had a difficult time dealing with her loss. He’s also haunted by the many regrets of his life, most of which resulted from his own admittedly poor choices.

“Give me my story,” Brill says, choosing to overcome his physical isolation by freeing his mind. “That’s all I want now—my little story to keep the ghosts away.”

The “little story,” as teased on the book cover, is of an “America not at war with Iraq but with itself. In this other America the twin towers did not fall and the 2000 election results led to secession, as state after state pulled away from the union and a bloody civil war ensued.”

This “other war,” as Brill describes it—“America cracking apart, the noble experiment finally dead”—provides an interesting distraction for as long as Brill maintains it, but midway through the book, it devolves into intentionally self-aware muck and then peters out. Brill gives up on the story as his real-life ghosts intrude.

Yet the civil war motif runs strong throughout the book in a variety of ways. The characters’ isolation forces them into combat with themselves—even as their internal combat forces them into isolation.

Brill’s daughter, Miriam, for instance, with whom Brill lives, has retreated into isolation following a messy divorce. She avoids dealing with her own heartbreak by tending to her broken father. “I wish to God she would learn the rotten acts human beings commit against one another are not just aberrations—they’re an essential part of who we are,” thinks Brill, with all the wisdom of someone who’s committed his share of rotten acts and now lies awake at night, regretting them.

Brill is troubled, too, by the cocoon his granddaughter has wrapped herself in following the death in Iraq of her estranged boyfriend, Titus. The death, particularly grisly, haunts Brill, too, because Titus had once been Brill’s protégé.

While isolation begets loneliness, Auster’s book suggests that isolation can also bring healing and lead to hope. As Brill’s long night finally stretches toward morning, he, his daughter, and his granddaughter quietly confront those things that keep them all up at night.

So, for me, the old lesson was again relearned. Don’t judge Man in the Dark by its cover—as cool as it was, the story inside was so much better.

2 replies »

  1. I had heard so much about Auster, especially from an acquaintance who praised him to the skies. He was especially excited because he once saw Auster walk by while he was looking out his window in Brooklyn.

    I tried one of his books, one of his New York trilogy, I think. Very disappointed with its lifelessness. It just lay there on the page. Seemed unedited too.

    His reputation preceded him. But once I read the book, it detached itself from him.

  2. Auster is simply one of the most overrated writers around. A darling of the literary establishment, apparently, but really just not very good.