For such a short book, Man in the Dark contains a lot of ideas and a lot of stories. The protagonist of the novel, Paul Auster’s twelfth, is August Brill, a seventy-two year old Pullitzer Prize-winning book reviewer. Brill is staying with his daughter and granddaughter while he recovers from a car accident. Lying awake one night he tells himself a story to distract himself from the grief surrounding him. He is not yet over the death of his wife, his granddaughter, Katya, is in shock from the murder of her boyfriend, and his daughter, Miriam, has been alone since her husband left her five years ago.
So he tells himself a story in which a man from our world, Owen Brick, finds himself transported to a parallel America, one that is not at war with Iraq but that has been plunged into civil war following the 2000 presidential election. Brick is told that only he can stop the war.
But there are other stories too; the stories in the films Brill watches with Katya, films in which women are the ones who carry the world, and the stories from Brill’s past, the stories he lived and those he heard from friends.
All this is crammed into 180 pages, pages which breeze past thanks to Auster’s flowing prose. Auster conveys complex ideas about loneliness, love and the importance of narratives with language that never gets in the way of the thoughts it is carrying. He makes it seem easy but it certainly isn’t.
It could be argued that the novel would have benefitted from being more complex. Auster sets the scene at the beginning of the novel with such transparency that you wish he would ease off a bit and allow to discover some things as he goes. The only conclusion, if we assume that Auster knows what he’s doing, is that he doesn’t want us distracted by the mechanics of the story.
What should we focus on? Well, Brill and his family are opting out of life. Brill tells himself stories, Miriam is writing a book and Katya, having dropped out of film school, watches films all day. They aren’t actually living life but stories can be a useful way to get through difficult times.
It goes deeper than that, I think, but I can't say more without spoiling it.