The Book of Illusions
by Paul Auster
A review by Brooke Allen
"Hip intellectual" is an oxymoron in this country, and it is therefore appropriate that the hip, intellectual novelist Paul Auster should be a little less popular here than he is in France, where no such contradiction is recognized. Auster has always written from the head rather than the heart. All his novels are built on cerebral conceits, and in spite of his oft observed fascination with chance, coincidence, and contingency, his books are painstakingly constructed: characters are emblems as opposed to people; situations are created out of a feeling for dramatic symmetry rather than from the all-too-messy urgency of human passion. The results can be compelling, but they tend to be on the dry side.
With his new novel, Auster seems to be attempting to work in a more emotional vein, but the effort is not very successful, because the central catastrophe has occurred before the action begins: when we first meet the narrator, a professor of literature named David Zimmer, he is trying to recover from the recent death of his wife and two sons in an airplane accident. This is a subject that can hardly fail to harrow any reader, so our empathy with David is cheaply bought, allowing Auster to get away with mere formulaic breast-beating and hair-tearing before heading into the main part of the plot. This describes David's involvement with the silent-film comedian Hector Mann, who disappeared mysteriously nearly sixty years earlier and on whose career David is the only living expert. Hector turns out to be still alive, and as David gets drawn into the comedian's bizarre subsequent history, he discovers that their two lives have taken parallel courses. At the same time, he turns from death back toward life, aided by characters (or signifiers) with suggestive names like Alma and Frieda. The Book of Illusions is too allegorical to be emotionally affecting, and although it's perfectly readable, its prose is bland and undistinguished, its dialogue trite -- every character talks exactly like David Zimmer himself. And, like all Auster's novels, it makes its careful architecture just a little too evident.
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