I bought “Man In The Dark” because I was transferring between flights in an airport in some non-English speaking country and I’d run out of things to read. I had no idea that Paul Auster is seen in America as a contemporary god of literature, who’s writing, to quote Wikipedia, “blends absurdism, existentialism, crime fiction, and the search for identity and personal meaning.”
So I came to “Man In The Dark” with no preconceptions, just a willingness to engage with the text.
I was impressed by the concept: an insomniac old man, in pain from a leg shattered in a recent car accident, is trying to get through the night in his daughter’s house. His hours of unwelcome wakefulness are stained by grief for his dead wife and worry about his lonely, divorced daughter. He seeks refuge from his cares by talking to his granddaughter and sleep-dreaming a Kafkaesque novel about a dystopian alternative-future US, locked in a civil war.
This was all very promising. The old man, a prize winning journalist was beautifully realized and his conversations with his granddaughter have some wonderful observations about films and the role of objects in film narrative. I felt this was a man I’d like to spend time with.
Unfortunately the book then started to get clever and to play with metaphysical twists and turns that seemed forced and reminded me of just how strongly I associate boredom with Samuel Becket, who made me wait for Godot for an unbearable eternity (yes, I know that that’s what he mean to do. What I don’t know is why I should thank him for that.).
The book within a book, about a man who wakes in a hole and finds himself drawn into fighting in a war where he has no allegiance to any side was never very compelling. It degenerated into a Kafka-wannabe college-student effort and finally disappeared up its own metaphysical orifice when it turns out that the hero in the story can only win through if he assassinates the old man who invented him.
The structure is clever but in a way that suggests all of the meanings of “conceit”.
I read the book to the end. I was able to acknowledge the skill of the author and the sincerity of the moral struggle but it seemed to me that this book failed both as a novel and as a vehicle for original metaphysical thought.
This being said, I’m sure it will appear on High School reading lists for a generation as an example of “real” literature – you know, the kind people read to show how clever they are rather than so they can have a good time.