"Human beings need stories," the American author Paul Auster once observed, attempting to explain why he writes fiction. This is certainly true for August Brill, the main character in his new novel.
Brill has trouble sleeping, because when night falls memories he would prefer to forget come back to torture him: the recent death of his wife, Sonia, and the horrific murder of his granddaughter's boyfriend, Titus. To keep his mind occupied with other things, Brill, who in a past life was an acclaimed literary critic, makes up stories of his own. When we enter the book, the man in the dark is fantasising about war. He imagines that the 11 September 2001 attacks and the confrontation with Saddam Hussein never took place, and that America is instead involved in a different kind of battle.
Following the controversial election of George W Bush in 2000, or so Brill dreams, the Democratic-voting states seceded and formed a new union, which soon led to the outbreak of a second civil war, with crushing consequences for all Americans. An assassin, Owen Brick, is sent out to stop the fighting by shooting the man ultimately responsible for the conflict: its inventor, August Brill.
At first, the narrative shifts between the killer and the insomniac, the fictional character and his maker, two men who seem to have much in common. Both of them, it turns out as the parallel tales develop, are victims of personal tragedies linked to the wars their respective Americas are fighting - in Brill's case the war in Iraq. Later, however, the book focuses entirely on Brill as he and his family try to come to terms not only with Titus's kidnapping in Baghdad and subsequent beheading by Islamist terrorists, but also with the mistakes each of them has made in his or her personal life. Mistakes which continue to keep them all awake at night.
Even though Auster has in many ways returned to familiar ground, by constructing a kind of alter ego in Brill and placing him within a broken home, this is not a typical Auster novel. The author has previously let us know that something has gone terribly wrong with American society: in Mr Vertigo, for instance, he discreetly objected to the lack of honourable men in modern culture, and in Brooklyn Follies three years ago, Auster quietly asserted that the 11 September 2001 attacks and the events that followed had unchangeably contaminated life in the United States. Add to that In the Country of Last Things, which also explores the story of America falling apart (and reads well together with this latest work). What separates Man in the Dark from the earlier books, however, is the more pronounced political angle. Auster no longer tries to hide his opinion that the country has gone astray and, as he writes, now finds itself in a "great wilderness": an order of things that, according to him, has developed gradually and recently been sustained by Bush's controversial foreign policies.
This is a potentially risky act. It would be easy to view the book merely as a contribution to the political discussion of the Iraq War, especially as it is being published in the middle of the US presidential election campaign. Auster's perspective is also more superficial than that of other modern authors who have commented on or, in other ways, involved contemporary politics in their fiction. In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth issued a general warning against granting governments too much power (allegorically interpreted by many as a critique of the Bush administration) which was relevant to readers everywhere. Don DeLillo and Joyce Carol Oates, too, addressed a broad readership in Falling Man and the novella "The Mutants", both of which dealt with the aftermath of 9/11, whereas Auster clearly writes for a domestic audience. It becomes particularly evident when he dreamingly accounts for the policy ambitions of the seceded states: "Foreign policy: no meddling anywhere . . . Domestic policy: universal health insurance, no more oil, no more cars or planes, a fourfold increase in teachers' salaries . . ." Even so, the plot is strong enough to distract you from the political overtones and the prose is impressive, as usually with Auster, which saves this novel from reducing itself to only a political tool.
With Man in the Dark, Auster seems to have reached a turning point in his own life. His characters - a long stream of writers and critics damaged by family catastrophes - are often reminiscent of the author himself, because they are partly built on autobiographical material. (In Oracle Night, for example, the fictitious author Sydney Orr's son is involved in drug-related offences similar to those Daniel Auster was convicted for). The tone in the earlier novels is generally self-critical, but this book gives off a sense of reconciliation and contentment. As August Brill in the story confronts and accepts his past, so, it appears, does Auster. This is a maturing of his authorship and it makes Man in the Dark one of his most accomplished novels yet.