Paul Auster - Man in the Dark (5 stars)

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(Faber and Faber)

POST 9/11 FICTION

In addressing the increasingly threadbare myths that America tells itself about 9/11 and the ensuing war, Auster has shed the dazzling hyper-reflexive post-modern narrative trickery he’s known for like an empty skin, revealing something tender and personal. Man in the Dark may be surprisingly low-key, but it’s also stunningly effective.

Our narrator is August Brill, 72 years old and living in a house in mourning. He grieves for his wife, his daughter mourns the end of her marriage and all three are still reeling from the brutal murder of granddaughter Katya’s boyfriend, in Iraq, in circumstances revealed with slow, mounting horror.

It’s a straightforward narrative, but it’s still Auster, and other stories still pulse beneath the surface. Brill tells himself other people’s tales of love, loss, and war, collated from his memories and from the films that he and Katya watch, and writes a novel about a man called Owen Brick who wakes up one day in an America where 9/11 and the Iraq invasion hadn’t happened.

Compassionately, without judgement, Auster gradually brings us to realise that all this story-telling is at once diversion and an essential part of the grieving process. Brill faces up to his bereavement, and his infidelities; Katya begins to deal with the guilt she feels about her boyfriend’s death. The shadow of Iraq hovers over the book and the complicity of the average citizen is not dismissed, but by dropping the pyrotechnics, Auster finds small, glowing, lovely grains of hope in humanity.

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