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Man in the Dark, by Paul Auster

Reflections from a hall of mirrors where the present changes shape

"I'm happiest in a movie, even a bad movie". So states the narrator of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer – a classic fictional account of the way we seek short-term evasions in order to dodge the horror of quotidian reality. In Paul Auster's new novel, August Brill also knows a thing or two about celluloid escapism. He's a man in his seventies, suffering insomnia, "another white night in the great American wilderness"; which, in his case, happens to be the Green Mountain State of Vermont. And he's grappling with major upheavals: the death of his wife, the after-effects of an automobile accident (which smashed up one of his legs), the appalling murder of his granddaughter's chap.

Summarising Brill's traumas makes me think of that great one-liner favoured by Borscht Belt comedians: "and you think you've got problems!" But being a man of letters – a much-honoured book critic (is there such a thing?) – Brill finds refuge in the world of stories. Sitting with his granddaughter, Katya – an obsessive cinephile – they work through such classics as The World of Apu, Bicycle Thieves and Grand Illusion. Brill worries about his grief-stricken granddaughter and sees her movie watching as "self-medication... to anaesthetize herself against the need to think about her future". When it comes to his own future, he is even more pessimistic. "Let my half-finished manuscript go on gathering dust for now", he notes, while engaging in the self-loathing that often envelops critics in novels that grapple with the transient nature of the written word.

Seeking a further way out of the hell of his current life, he invents an ever darker version of his own contemporary reality: a story about a man with the very Tennessee Williams name of Brick. He too is having a bad time. Having woken from a deep sleep, he finds himself in the middle of a new American Civil War. Welcome to a Brave New World – where 9/11 never happened and millions lay dead thanks to this internecine carnage. Brick finds himself the centre of a Robert Ludlum Goes Intellectual plot: he has to stop the gent who has created this monstrous reality.

Auster's novels have always operated like halls of mirrors: the reader is led into a labyrinth of reflecting surfaces. As such, Man in the Dark can be read as a nuit blanche reverie laden with existential dread in which no one has the ability to control the random catastrophes that constitute a life. Veering between Brick's phantasmagorias and his reflections on everything from his meaningless career to the failure of his marriage, Auster does display expert technical control in the economy of his many-layered narratives. Man in the Dark packs much into 180 pages – and how you will respond to it will depend on whether you buy into his metaphysical games and the emotional distance that underscores much of this novel.

Indeed, for a book which deals with so much private and communal misery, it has a decidedly portentous tone. It's difficult to gain much emotional purchase from Brill and his damaged existence. And the "Can Brick Save The World?" subplot – though cunningly rendered – feels more like an authorial gambol than a dystopian bad dream. Yes, we all retreat into the world of the story to make sense of our disquieting realities. And yes, the frontier between the imagined and the perceived is a blurry one. But you come away from this elegant but underwhelming novel thinking: so what else is new?

Douglas Kennedy's new novel, 'Leaving the World', will be published by Hutchinson in May

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