The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster is not an easy book to describe. A very basic plot summary is possible but that hardly seems to do the narrative justice. Underneath each seemingly simple storyline is a complex layer of emotion, imagery, and symbolism. The book is not content with just a single narrative but instead has layers of narration. The result is a complex, thought provoking and intellectually stimulating work that nevertheless left me a little cold at the end.
The narrator of this web of stories is David Zimmer a literature professor who has recently lost his wife and two sons to a tragic plane crash. His response to this tragedy is to withdraw into an alcoholic induced oblivion. He escapes from the world and spends his days drinking and watching television. In the midst of this stupor he is struck by the comedy of an obscure silent film star named Hector Mann. Mann was an enigmatic actor that burst onto the scene during the 1920’s and then mysteriously disappeared. Hector’s comedic stylings somehow cut through the guilt and rage of Zimmer’s life and make him laugh. Mann’s films have recently been archived at a series of museums around the world and as a way to pull himself out of his downward spiral Zimmer decides to seek them out. A windfall in insurance money allows him to put everything else behind him and focus on his new obsession: Hector Mann.
Zimmer focus all his energy on absorbing these films. He watches them over and over again until they are seared into his mind. He then rents an apartment in New York City and pours out a monograph on Mann’s life work. Zimmer may have saved his life by exchanging scholarship for alcohol but he is in no way mentally stable. He finds himself incapable of interacting with people in any real way and is frequently violent. Having completed the manuscript and submitted it to a variety of academic presses, he returns to Vermont but continues to live the life of a recluse. The work, The Silent Life of Hector Mann, is eventually published, however, and it creates the ripples the will drive the rest of the story.
An old college friend calls and offers him a job translating Chateaubriand’s Memoires d’Outre Tombe and again Zimmer throws himself into work, spending long hours alone, and only going out to pick up groceries and supplies. Into this lonely world comes a strange letter that threatens to upset his carefully constructed world. The note is a message from a Frieda Spelling claiming to be the wife of Hector Mann. The cryptic message notes that Hector is alive and has read Zimmer’s book and invites the author to visit them in New Mexico. Zimmer finds this missive intriguing but also worries that this is the work of a crank. He seeks hard evidence that Mann really is alive and that Spelling is who she claims. Having insisted on concrete details and heard no further response, Zimmer assumes the issue is behind him. Until late one night he is visited by a women named Alma who claims to be a representative from the Mann’s seeking to bring Zimmer to the ranch. From here the story begins to pick up pace and to increase in complexity. It is as if the earlier story was simply a prologue to the real events now to be revealed.
I won’t go into any more details in case you want to read the story for yourself, but Alma is the keeper of the “rest of the story” as it relates to Hector Mann. Zimmer soon finds out what happened in the intervening years between Hector’s Hollywood disappearance (and the cause of that disappearance) and the arrival of Frieda Spelling’s note. This is where the complexity comes into play. The narrative lines are multifaceted as Auster has Zimmer narrate the story of Hector through Alma. We are seeing Hector’s life through his eyes but as told by Alma through Zimmer and ultimately through Auster as author. At the same time we are following two different stories: the story of Alma and Zimmer and the story of Hector (and eventually Frieda Spelling). And ultimately all of this is Zimmer mirroring Chateaubriand and looking back on events from the grave.
I don’t feel like I can do the work justice in trying to describe the various story threads or their potential symbolic meaning but let me offer a few areas that seem ripe for discussion:
– It seems to me that Auster is commenting on art as obsession. Zimmer, Mann, and Alma each in their own way are obsessed with capturing something in their art and find themselves in turn captured by it. Zimmer and Alma are focused on the written word and Mann on film. These characters take their creations beyond mere profession or hobby. Zimmer absorbs Mann’s films and then pours them out into the written word. This process is carried out in almost complete isolation and with a obsessive focus. The Mann’s obsession with making films encompasses their entire lives. The process requires everything they have and they identify it as the central focus of their lives. The driving force behind Alma’s life is the biography of Mann; this is what motivates her actions and centers her existence. And in the end, the destruction of her work leads to her own destruction. The single film Zimmer is able to view at the ranch involves this concept as well.
– Another theme that stands out is the ability of seemingly small circumstances to alter a person’s life forever. Zimmer’s insistence that his wife and children fly out of Boston – ironically to avoid a small prop plane deemed unsafe – leads to the tragedy that nearly destroys his life. Hector Mann’s flat tire leads to the tragedy that changes his life. Zimmer only becomes aware of Mann by randomly flipping through cable channels. He narrowly escapes killing himself because a gun’s safety catch is left on. As the story spirals to a conclusion, Zimmer notes that his introduction to the ranch seems to have set off a chain reaction of tragic proportions. Throughout the book small events have large repercussions.
– One last theme that seems to run throughout the work is the pairing of death and redemption. Both Mann and Zimmer are caught up in tragic and destructive events and both are seeking to find peace; to find a way to live with themselves and the world. Hector’s life is a cycle of symbolic death and re-invention as redemption. At each step he leaves behind the old Mann and re-invents himself as someone else. He seeks to leave the past behind but it has a way of haunting him. In the end he seeks oblivion as both penance and redemption but this act brings its own tragic consequences in its wake. Zimmer is on a similar track. His initial reaction to tragedy is oblivion through alcohol. Writing the book on Mann is his lifeline but it also ends up leading to more destruction and death. He tries to find meaning and peace in the films of Mann or the memoirs of Chateaubriand but he is unable to re-connect with humanity. Alma seems to be the bridge to bring him back to life but the cycle is only repeated.
The above themes are intertwined as well. Art is both an escape and a coping mechanism for getting through life’s tragic cycle; is both death and resurrection. It captures the mortal nature of humanity but it has the ability to live on past its creator’s lifetime. It is both reality and an illusion.
Such is my awkward attempt to capture this complex and layered novel. As I noted above, it is thought provoking and emotionally stimulating. As you are reading you find yourself trying to make sense of the overlapping ideas and to connect the story lines to a deeper meaning. Identity, memory, love, death, truth, art, and life all swirl around each other in this work.
Auster’s prose makes the story easy to read and the cascading and intertwined stories hold your interest, but the conclusion was a little flat. Those skilled in symbolism and imagery, however, are likely to enjoy uncovering and unpacking all of the ideas Auster has weaved into his story. Much of the story has a fantastical element to it -stretching one’s imagination of what is possible – but the final chapters seemed almost forced. It was as if Auster had created all of these intriguing stories but wasn’t sure how to tie them together. As a result the work was thought provoking but not fully satisfying as a story. To me it was similar to watching Mulholland Drive, it was enjoyable but you weren’t exactly sure what to make of it at the end. (In fact, an interest in film and literature as art and as a process would certainly increase your enjoyment of the book. Not being a big fan of art films I found the detailed descriptions of Mann’s films tiresome and bit verbose but those are just my tastes. Someone knowledgeable in film criticism might find those sections add to the depth and meaning of the work.)
In the end, I found reading Book of Illusions entertaining and stimulating but the whole seemed less than the parts. I enjoyed its exploration of ideas and themes but felt it lacked resolution. To be fair this is mostly quibbling, Auster should be given credit for creating an ambitious and challenging novel and readers who take the time to explore it will be rewarded.