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The Book of Illusions: A Novel Paperback – Aug 1 2003


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (Aug. 1 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312421818
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312421816
  • Product Dimensions: 13.9 x 2.2 x 21.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 295 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,004,860 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Amazon

Vermont professor David Zimmer is a broken man. The protagonist of Paul Auster's 10th novel, The Book of Illusions, hits a period in which life seemed to be working aggressively against him. After his wife and sons are killed in an airplane crash, Zimmer becomes an alcoholic recluse, fond of emptying his bottle of sleeping pills into his palm, contemplating his next move. But one night, while watching a television documentary, Zimmer's attention is caught by the silent-film comedian Hector Mann, who had disappeared without a trace in 1929 and who was considered long-dead. Soon, Zimmer begins work on a book about Mann's newly discovered films (copies of which had been sent, anonymously, to film archives around the world). The spirit of Hector Mann keeps David Zimmer alive for a year. When a letter arrives from someone claiming to be Hector Mann's wife, announcing that Mann had read Zimmer's book and would like to meet him, it is as if fate has tossed Zimmer from one hand to the other: from grief and loss to desire and confusion.

Although film images are technically "illusions," this deft and layered novel is not so much about conscious illusion or trickery as about the traces we leave behind us: words, images, memories. Children are one obvious trace, but in this book, they are not allowed to carry their parents forward. They die early: Hector Mann losing his 3-year-old son to a bee sting just as David Zimmer has lost his two sons in the crash. The second half of The Book of Illusions is given over to a love affair, and to Zimmer's attempt to save something of Hector Mann, and of the others he has loved. In the end, what really survives of us on earth--what flickering immortality we are permitted--is left to the reader to surmise. --Regina Marler --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

David Zimmer, an English professor in Vermont, is trying to rebuild his life-after his family perishes in an airplane crash-by researching the work of Hector Mann, a minor figure from the era of silent movies, in this enigmatic, elliptical 10th novel, one of Auster's best. As in much of the writer's fiction, the narrative revolves around coincidence, fate and odd resonances. Mann's world, like Zimmer's, collapses in a single instant, and Mann, like Zimmer, embarks on self-imposed exile as a way to deal with his grief and do penance. Mann disappeared at the height of his career in 1929, but when Zimmer's book about him is published in the 1980s, it elicits a mysterious invitation: would Zimmer like to meet Mann, who is alive and has been working in secret as actor/director Hector Spelling? The skeptical scholar is lured from Vermont by Alma Grund, who grew up around Mann and is writing his biography. As Grund and Zimmer fall in love, she fills in the decades-long gap in Mann's life-a strange American odyssey that culminated on a ranch in New Mexico where he made movies he refused to screen for anyone. As in previous novels, Auster here makes the unbelievable completely credible, and his overall themes are very much of a piece with those of earlier works: the "mutinous unpredictability of matter" and the way storytellers shape and organize unpredictability. A darker and more somber mood shadows this book; Mann and Zimmer both are tragic figures-even melodramatic-and their stories are compelling. Auster is a novelist of ideas who hasn't forgotten that his first duty is to tell a good story.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars

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By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on Aug. 31 2013
Format: Paperback
This is one very smooth and engaging novel. It takes the reader through the most complex and improbable tales in an attempt to show how enticingly powerful illusions, or images of reality, are in life. Professor Zimmer, an English literature professor in an eastern university, has just lost his wife and sons in a plane crash. To get through the grieving process, he must find something that occupies his time and replaces the haunting memories of a life once enjoyed. Friends come on board to give him succor, but nothing seems to work except his passion for researching the obscure and enigmatic life of America's avant-garde filmmaker, Hector Mann, who is a man of many aliases. Auster not only writes a fine story that takes the reader on a lifetime adventure but builds character and plot to an ultimate moment of recognition where reality is found in our trust in illusion. Getting caught up in the fascinatingly elusive world of an artist constantly running away from publicity is an existential venture in itself that can certainly spawn its own strange encounters. This book is full of them but, rest assured that, as the hero in the story chases the chimera called Hector to the end in the hope of confirming his genius, the answer will come in the most enlightening of ways. The bizarre and sinister brilliance of the man can only be found in the greater scheme of life that goes beyond a mere collection of silent films that amount to nothing more than personal studies in human erotica. There are the many women in his life, his reputation as an artistic innovator, the personal losses, the running from his past, and hiding out in the New Mexico desert that makes Mann a compelling person to chase after. What has he to tell Zimmer about his own complex existence that will make life more bearable? Everything in this novel comes down to the memory of relationships with others.
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How do you pull yourself together after a crisis? How can you begin to laugh, carry on casual conversations, go to work, when what sustained your life has been lost? The suggestion in this finely wrought novel is that in the absence or the fracture of an overarching significance, meaning can be found in the taking up of finite and all-consuming projects. A literature professor who has lost his family takes on the project of writing about an obscure and allegedly deceased silent film actor. Eventually, he discovers that the man is alive but not well in New Mexico, where he has been making films that he plans to have destroyed upon his death.

Redemption, this novel suggests, can be found by engaging in meaningful enterprises for which one holds no further expectation or hope than the enterprise itself. (This is far too simple and would require loads of qualification, but I can't qualify it further without going into details from the text that I wouldn't want to deprive anyone of the enjoyment of discovering for him or herself. This is a solid piece of work that deserves to be read both for its overall themes but also for its wonderful descriptions of nonexistent films that I wish I could see and feel a bit like I have after reading this novel.)
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The story focuses on David Zimmer. An author who has walled himself away from the world after the death of his wife and two boys. To get over his grief, he decides to write a book about a little known silent screen actor who disappeared from the face of the earth after his last silent movie. What follows is a story of how David comes back to life (eventually) after being asked to go and meet with the elusive actor.

The book is pure Auster. It has the regular story, and then Auster concocts several other stories within the story. And as always he dangles just enough of the story within the story to keep you interested and wanting more.

So what didn't I like about this novel? The main character David Zimmer. That's what I didn't like. He comes across as mean and I never grew to like him, no matter how long I stayed with the novel. Having said that though, if you're a Paul Auster fan, then you'll want to read this book. If it is your first time in coming to an Auster novel, I'd recommend The New York Trilogy first.
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There were some really gripping bits of this novel. The characters are consitently, coherently drawn, it does a good job slipping back and forth between time and place, and it manages to create suspense and drama from a fairly understated story line. I particularly like the physicality of the descriptions. I really got a sense for what nealry all the characters looked and sounded like. And they all stayed in character - there weren't departures from character to scoot the plot along.
However, it fell short it two fairly glaring areas for me.
1) The romance elements are barely plausible. They struck me as middle-school melodramatic. People sort of pop from indifference into world-shattering love, and stay in puppy-dog devotion until circumstances tear them apart.
2) The attempt to discribe brilliant cinema fell so far short as to be almost comic in its attempt. Writing about visual art is really hard to do, and I respect the ambition of giving it a go here. Any description, even a good one, leaves you with a pretty thin shadow of the real thing, so no fault of Auster's that this is short of compelling. But this particular part of the book goes past the forgivable and into the groan-out-loud bad. Hard to say more without a spoiler here, but let me just say that I'm very glad that Auster is writer and not a film maker.
This was at the low end of a 4 star read for me. Lose the pretention, make the characters as real in their relations to each other as they are in their thoughts and actions, and leave brilliant films to the imagination, and it would have been a really notable read. As it is, its a solidly crafted, middle of the road, enjoyable but forgettable book.
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