The first sentence of Brooklyn novelist Paul Auster's new book reads like Proust channeled through Kafka: "I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle with another bout of insomnia, another white night in the American wilderness." No madeleines, no giant bugs, but something almost as queer: a parallel America where 9/11 never happened but the 2000 presidential election ignited a second civil war that has left 12 million Americans dead. And yet Man in the Dark (Henry Holt, 180 pages, $23) steps back from the grim metafiction that Auster has made his trademark. This is a "straight" book, if Auster can be accused of writing such a thing, in which an old man reflects on a life of simple joys, human mistakes and deep personal loss and resolves to endure. August Brill is a widowed 72-year-old book critic living in Vermont with his daughter and granddaughter after a car accident has left him an invalid (oh dear, is that all there is?). The daughter's husband walked out on her five years ago, and she has yet to move on with her life, distracting herself instead with work on a biography of the youngest daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Brill's 23-year-old granddaughter, a film student, is an even worse ruin, her boyfriend recently murdered under circumstances too painful for Brill to relate until the novel's final pages. Grandfather and granddaughter, meanwhile, pass the time dissecting old movies on DVD.
Brill's vision of an alternative, civil war America isn't "real"; it's a story he makes up in his head to pass the sleepless nights. When George W. Bush is elected by the Supreme Court, civil war erupts between red states and blue states (the Pacific Northwest forms its own country), and Brill's hero, a small-time magician named Owen Brick, is recruited from the world of post-9/11 America to assassinate the man who caused the war in Brill's dream world—not Bush but Brill himself. If Brill dies, the theory goes, the war ends. Brill's dream logic defies all plausibility, let alone reality. Americans don't kill each other over elections; they can't even focus long enough to abolish the electoral college. Brill's alternate history sets up a paradox, so he abruptly abandons it two-thirds of the way through the book. The heart of Auster's novel is found not in fantasies of assassination plots and parallel universes but in Brill's memories of his late wife, who died of cancer, and the people who touched their lives—the reality that informs Brill's alternate reality. Auster's novel is captivating at every turn, filling 180 pages with reminiscences other novelists would take 500 pages to unravel. Who else could recount the entire plot of the movie Tokyo Story and make it more compelling than the original? Along the way, August Brill stumbles upon an important truth in a nation of avid moviegoers: We are all alone in the dark.
Paul Auster appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 226-4681. 7:30 pm Friday, Sept. 19. Free.