August Brill, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic, now a depressed widower confined to a wheelchair, spends much of each night lying awake, thinking about his life and creating stories to keep himself amused. Living with his divorced daughter Miriam and his granddaughter Katya in Brattleboro, Vermont, August has made no progress at all writing his book, a memoir he hopes to leave to posterity. Instead he watches films with his granddaughter, analyzing how filmmakers use objects as symbols to convey human emotions.
Each person in the novel is "in the dark," searching for identity and the meaning of life and love, but each is also trying to reconcile his/her present life with the accidents of his own history. The death of August's wife, and his own accident, have left him dependent on Miriam. Miriam's abandonment by her husband has left her vulnerable and responsible for the household, and Katya, his granddaughter, is almost paralyzed from the death of her lover, feeling that she did not love him enough. All feel like failures.
This absurdist novel gains excitement--and its main plot--each night when August, sleepless, invents characters living different kinds of lives in an alternative reality--one so close to our own reality that its plausibility becomes frightening. In his on-going stories, August flashes back to the year 2000, in which the Presidential election has led to riots and the demand to abolish the Electoral College. Eventually New York, New England, and nine states in the Midwest, seceded, precipitating the Second Civil War, against President George Bush and the Federals.
The novel opens with action from Brill's alternative reality and switches back and forth with reality. Owen Brick, a young man dressed in fatigues, is trapped in a deep hole, unable to escape. He has no idea where he is or how he got there, but he cannot avoid his mission to assassinate the creator of the war--August Brill, who also created him. As the novel switches from present reality into the alternative reality and back, the author makes thoughtful observations about writing and its ability to create realities, but on the plot level (which ends after 2/3 of the book), it is also suspenseful, exciting, and a great deal of fun. Sly humor peeks through much of the alternative reality plot line, and the ironic twists on several levels keep the reader entertained. The characters grow as they share their family histories, and as the Second Civil War rages in one reality, the real characters, like Brill and his friends, remember the very real horrors of the Second World War and Iraq. Intense and clever, Auster's novel examines important issues of war, reality, and identity in fewer than two hundred pages. Mary Whipple
The New York Trilogy (Green Integer)
The Invention of Solitude
The Book of Illusions: A Novel
Travels in the Scriptorium: A Novel
Three Films: Smoke, Blue in the Face, and Lulu on the Bridge