Reading Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions is like reading Stephen King without the violence and the horror. Auster writes in a similar style to King, succinct and direct, focusing on the narrative drive, teasing the reader with hints and cliffhangers, drawing them in with extensive descriptions of personal trauma. In fact the narrator of The Book of Illusions reminds me of King’s narrator in 11/22/63 – another character who is self obsessed, preoccupied and introspective, but also has no verbal tics or mannerisms to make him seem real.
Auster is a Post-Modernist. Now postmodernism is a literary movement characterised by parody, self reference and intertextuality. Check the link – it’s all there.
So Auster is parodying King’s narrative style whilst using it as the starting point for a whole different kind of novel, because despite appearances The Book of Illusions is not really a thriller, it’s a book about texts and intertextuality. Here’s a brief run down:
David Zimmer is a university lecturer. His wife and children die in a plane crash, and he sinks into depression. He blames himself for rushing to get them on that plane. Only the silent movies of Hector Mann, his texts, offer a glimpse of optimism, an escape through humour. But Hector Mann disappeared without trace back in the 1920s. There are only a dozen or so films. Becoming obsessed, Zimmer sets out to watch them all and write a book about them. The Book of Illusions goes into some detail in describing these films.
Then Zimmer gets asked to write a translation of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, and is doing so when out of the blue he receives an invitation to meet Hector Mann. Apparently Hector is still alive, a voice from Beyond the Grave! But Zimmer refuses to believe this at first, and then he refuses to go to see Hector.
Eventually a woman turns up at his house and threatens Zimmer at gunpoint: Hector is on his deathbed and Zimmer must go and see him now. It’s all to do with what happens to Hector’s work when he dies. Now a key point about Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave is that the author insisted it was not to be published until after his death. Make what you will of that intertextual connection, and all the others. Auster never tells you what to think. He just lays a litter of clues in what is effectively a literary detective tale.
There’s a violent argument with the woman, a brief reconciliation, and then he agrees to go with her in the morning to see Hector. The woman is given the sofa overnight, but in the early hours she climbs into bed with him! They fall in love. The next day they fly to Hector’s house. En route she tells him the story of Hector’s life – a life ruined by guilt and self condemnation. It’s a detailed episodic tale focusing on Hector’s inability to move on from his involvement in the traumatic death of a lover. The events of Hector’s life stretch credibility. It’s quite hard to believe in his character and antics, and equally hard to believe that this woman jumps into bed with Zimmer and they fall in love, just like that. This is Auster questioning the tropes and cliches of modern popular fiction.
The climax of the novel concerns what happens to Hector’s life’s work – the films he made in the years of exile from Hollywood. You will need to read it to find out the details, but the basic structure is there – the parallels between the lives of Hector and Zimmer, their grief and inability to forgive themselves. It raises the ultimate question for all writers, all those who create texts: does a man’s work, indeed a man’s life, have any intrinsic value, Beyond the Grave.
The Book of Illusions. What is real? The fiction of Hector’s life? The illusion of guilt? Zimmer’s story? The love for this strange woman? In the end as a reader you question it all, never quite sure where the threshold is, between fiction and reality. And that’s the point, which is to say what is the point of fiction?
Should you read The Book of Illusions then? Possibly. But it’s only fiction, and fiction about fiction at that. How abstract, how far removed from reality do you want to be?