FABER £14.99 (180PP) £13.49 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897

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

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power