In Paul Auster's latest novel, A Man In The Dark, retired book critic August Brill recovers from a leg injury while his daughter Miriam and granddaughter Katya carry their own particular grief down the creaky hallways of their Vermont home. As he listens to the silences and looks into the darkness, Brill tells himself a story to fend off his individual miseries by looking at the larger chaos that afflicts humanity: war, violence, death. He creates an alternate reality where the United States is in the midst of a civil war, George W. Bush presides as president of the Federals, the Twin Towers still stand, and his protagonist, Owen Brick, struggles to find his way back into the world of the here and now, where Brill, his creator, lies in bed, a man in the dark.
Auster has used mirrors like these before, in works like The Book Of Illusions and his celebrated New York Trilogy. For him, stories are as much about life as they are the stuff of life. As a filmmaker, novelist, essayist, translator, editor, and poet, Auster has spent a career upending established storytelling methods to see what lies underneath. With A Man In The Dark, he seems to be saying that while tragedy can be a genre, despair is unique. On the occasion of the book's release, Auster sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss post-9/11 literature, using fiction to tell the truth, the 2000 presidential elections, how films fall short of novels, and the ghost of George W. Bush.
The A.V. Club: The story of A Man In The Dark begins literally with a man in the dark, telling himself a story to cope with his insomnia. How did this story come to you? Do different stories come to you in different ways?
Paul Auster: It's always a mystery to me, I have to confess. I've never been able to witness the birth of an idea. It seems as if one second, there's nothing particularly going on, and the next second, something is there. It's coming up out of my unconscious, up from places that I don't even know where they are. If it's compelling, if it throws me against the wall, then I get interested in it and start exploring it. If it seems to keep holding up, I go deeply into it and try to write it.
AVC: This book is already being branded as a "post-9/11" novel. Did this story take shape because of September 11?
PA: No, I think one of the burning issues that helped me think about this book—or made me think about it, I should say—was the 2000 elections, which were a source of such frustration and outrage. To see Al Gore elected president, and then for the Republicans, through political and legal manipulations, steal it from him. So, I've had this eerie sense for the last eight years that we've been living in a parallel world, a shadow world. And the reality is that Al Gore is finishing his second term as president, there's no war in Iraq, and there might never have been 9/11. When one considers how thoroughly the Clinton administration was tracking these people, it's possible it would have been blocked. I think that sense of unreality inspired me to write the story within the book that [August] Brill tells himself, one of the stories he tells himself.
AVC: We tell ourselves stories to fend off reality, like Brill does when he says, "Give me my story… to keep the ghosts away." On the other hand, some argue that Bush told us a story so he could involve us in the actuality of the war in Iraq.
PA: Yes, that's a good example. You're right: a fiction creating reality.
AVC: Is that something that's going on in this novel?
PA: No, because that fiction is propaganda. That fiction is just lies. The kind of fiction I'm trying to write is about telling the truth.
AVC: Is Man In The Dark a story you constructed to help you deal with the catastrophe of 9/11, or with other violence around the world?
PA: It's possible. There was another very important factor, too. I don't know if you noticed to whom the book is dedicated. David Grossman, he's an Israeli novelist and essayist. A great writer, in fact. And a very close friend of mine, someone I admire more than anybody I know. He's such a great person. His son Uri was 20 years old two years ago when he was killed in the war between Israel and Lebanon. I knew the boy, and it was just a shattering experience. Not just for David and his family, of course, who are still suffering horribly, but me too. I was just knocked off my chair when I read this. It was the very week when David and [Israeli writer] Amos Oz had gone to [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and were begging him to make a ceasefire. Two days later, Uri is killed, and two days after that, the ceasefire had gone into effect. It was tragic all the way around.
AVC: Does making art out of these events help us heal? Do you admire any particular so-called post-9/11 novels?
PA: Well, I don't know if it helps, it's just simply that writers and filmmakers feel a necessity to do it. It's so urgent, it's pressing down on us in ways that we can't escape. I guess of all those novels, Don DeLillo's Falling Man is the one I like the best. I thought there were some beautiful things in that, particularly the relationship between the man who finds the briefcase and the woman whose husband owned the briefcase. It's quite a beautiful passage.
AVC: In the novel, Brill spends a lot of time with his granddaughter Katya, watching and discussing films. At one point, Brill says, "Escaping into a film is not like escaping into a book." You've written and directed films yourself. Can you elaborate on this idea?
PA: Books demand more. You have to be a more active participant. [Brill] says, "You can actually watch a film in a state of passivity and even enjoy the film." Often it's true that films just go right through us. You see the film, you might be entertained, and if it's not a great film, it loses its power very quickly. I think even simply acceptable books stay with us a lot longer.
AVC: When Brill is talking about the film Tokyo Story with Katya, he mentions that "some films are as good as books," but compares the film to a Tolstoy novella. Can the best films be only as good as the best novellas, falling short of the scope of a full novel?
PA: Well, having made films, I know very well that the scope of the average 90- to 120-minute movie is about the same narrative heft as a long short story or a novella. Movies are not novels, and that's why when filmmakers try to adapt novels, particularly long or complex novels, the result is almost always failure. It can't be done. You need six hours, 20 hours, to try to do it. The best filmmakers, I think, have always had very narrow frameworks for their stories, and then they can go deeply, rather than skimming the surface. When I think of Tokyo Story, yeah, it is like a novella. That doesn't mean it's not great. Some of my favorite Tolstoy works are his novellas.
AVC: In the act of discussing books and films with others who have read or seen the same things, do we ever really arrive at a certain truth about the work, or can we only come as close as a common meeting point?
PA: Well, everyone reads a different book. That's what's interesting. Everyone sees a different film, as well. We bring our past lives to whatever work of art we're experiencing at that moment, and that's what makes it interesting. It's not mathematics. There are different answers for different people. I think the act of talking about something—with a friend, or someone in your family, or someone you care about, and you're discussing something that you both admire—can often sharpen your thoughts about what you've read or seen and help you think more clearly about it.
AVC: Does that happen for you when you're talking about your own work?
PA: No, it's completely different. To tell you the truth, I don't like talking about my work at all. I find it very difficult. I never know what to say. It's too close to me, and there's so many things happening unconsciously while I'm working that I'm not aware of, and people will point these things out to me, and I'll say, "That's interesting." But I don't know what to make of it.
AVC: Do you ever learn anything about your own work from what other people say about it?
PA: No, I don't think so, to tell you the truth. [Laughs.]
AVC: In Man In The Dark, when Katya and her grandfather are discussing the films Grand Illusion, The Bicycle Thief, and The World Of Apu, she comes up with this theory of the object—
PA: Yes, about inanimate objects as a means of expressing human emotion. I think it's important that you hear this conversation about the first three films—there's the fourth film that Brill speaks about later [Tokyo Story], but the first three films are discussed very early in the book. Now if you think about it, each one of these films and the themes in the films that they're discussing are very intimate. Themes between men and women, husbands and wives. And because the story Brill is thinking about is so huge and apocalyptic, the counterweight to that is in the intimacy of these stories in the films. Then, as the book moves on, about two-thirds of the way through, three-quarters of the way through, it takes a very sharp turn. Then, suddenly, Brill and his granddaughter are together in the dark talking about the family and his marriage to her grandmother. It becomes a very, very intimate story at that point.
AVC: Yeah, you sort of expect the story he's concocting for himself in bed to deliver the climactic moment of the novel as a whole, but there's a shift.
PA: It's just a step in the progress of the night for him. And that story is as much about Brill's state of mind as anything else. It's almost a psychological portrait of him through the medium of a story.
AVC: There's also the character of Katya's mother, Brill's daughter, Miriam. She's working on a book about Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter Rose, which leads Brill to abandon work on his own memoirs. He makes the excuse that "one writer in the house is enough." Seeing as how you're married to a novelist [Siri Hustvedt], it's hard not to interpret that as an inside joke.
PA: Actually, I wasn't thinking about that at all. I project myself so deeply into the characters in novels that I'm not thinking about my own life. It really isn't a reference. I mean, if you want to see it as a joke, it's fine. [Laughs.] But it wasn't intended that way, because actually we're two writers in this house and it's perfectly nice. We have no problems.
AVC: In Brill's alternate reality, he mentions how the new Independent States of America have a foreign policy of "no meddling anywhere" and a domestic policy of "universal health insurance, no more oil, no more cars or planes," etc. But he also states that these things are "a dream of the future, since the war drags on." Will these perfect things or ideas always be off in some unattainable distance, as our own war drags on?
PA: See, I don't think of them as perfect things. Medical care for the entire country seems to me a basic right. If every other country in the West can do it, why can't we? It's not some kind of starry-eyed vision of some utopian future, it's something we could easily do right now. I think the Independent States of America in the book fully intends to do it, but they've got their backs against the wall, and they haven't worked through it yet.
AVC: There's a line in the book about how we all go about our regular lives until "an unexpected event comes crashing down on us to jolt us out of our torpor." September 11 jolted us, but was eventually exploited to achieve mostly negative things. Can we be jolted into something positive?
PA: It all depends. I remember those days vividly. It's just seven years ago now. I can remember doing quite a few interviews at the time, interviews with foreign press. Right here, in Brooklyn, the smoke was coming into our house, and I was not fit for writing anything at that point. I had just finished The Book Of Illusions, in fact, so I wasn't doing anything, and people kept calling me from all these different radio and TV stations in Europe and Japan to comment. And for once, I did it. I went out and talked. I can remember saying again and again and again, "A terrible thing has happened, but this should be a kind of wake-up call for our country, and we have a great opportunity now to reinvent ourselves. To rethink our position about oil and energy, to rethink our relationship with other cultures and other countries, and why other people want to attack us." You know, all kinds of suggestions I was throwing out. I still believe we wasted a golden opportunity to make significant changes in our country. I think people in America would have been ready and willing to do it, but the Bush administration took a kind of simplistic, almost moronic approach to it, all because people were so afraid. And because Bush and his cohorts made them so afraid on top of their legitimate fears, he got them to follow. It's only now that it seems the public has woken up and is ready to boot him out of office, even though he's leaving anyway. He's done. I look at him on TV now, when he's giving a speech, I saw him on the news yesterday, and it's like looking at a ghost. He doesn't exist anymore. He's finished. He's defunct as a presence in American life.
AVC: Brill looks at Miriam's manuscript and fixates on a line of Rose Hawthorne's poetry: "As the weird world rolls on…" Throughout the book, there's this sense of life just happening to us, with or without our input. Are we all just stumbling toward some gloomy fate?
PA: No! It's just the opposite. "The weird world rolls on…" meaning that through all the ups and downs, all the travails that we go through, all the horrors, all the wars, all the deaths, all the cruelties, there's still something that keeps us wanting to wake up the next morning and go on with our lives—to make children, to fall in love, to continue humanity. So it's both. Life is deeply tragic and also very comic at the same time. It's everything at once.