Stuart Hopen's Reviews > The Book of Illusions

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster
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SPOILER ALERT.
In the Book of Illusions, a professor at a Vermont college suffers the loss of a wife and two sons in a plane crash, which leaves him in a state of incurable depression. One night he glimpses a fragment of an old silent comedy, and it makes him laugh. So he undertakes a critical study of the work of the comic who made the film, Hector Mann. He describes the comic as a minor artist, though “of interest.”
A film director friend of mine once commented, “God save me from reviewers who call my work “interesting.” But that is the best way I know to describe my reaction to Auster. I rather loved Paul Auster’s City of Glass. I hated the Book of Illusions while I was slogging my way through it, but as I prepared this review, mocking Auster with a plot summary, I found it hilarious. On the surface, the novel was dour and portentous, absorbed in self-study, and idiosyncratic. On reflection, the intent seems ironic. Horace Walpole said, “Life is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think.” The Book of Illusions seems to be a reflection of that sentiment, served up in an experience of simultaneity.
Mann vanished mysteriously at the end of the silent film era. Academic studies of imaginary silent films by the imaginary auteur follow. I listened to this novel as an audiobook, and this portion of the novel was presented in a medium that was antithetical to the medium that it mediates upon, the opposite of a silent film, the work is all voice, all words, and no images.
The novel describes a significant number of compressed non-existent silent film comedies, which are critically analyzed as they are presented to the reader. The experience is akin to Stanislaw Lem’s collection of nonexistent book reviews, A Perfect Vacuum.
Auster, who has directed and scripted his own films, now has the opportunity to present effects, such as a pencil moustache which works with a life of its own and speaks as eloquently as a second mouth without the constraints of trying to find an actor capable of achieving the effect in reality. And because he provides his own critical analysis of the work, it is rather like the sound of one hand clapping. The opening largely concerns a protagonist who is alone most of the time and depressed, it is very essense of a solopsitic performance.
After finishing the Hector Mann project, the narrator begins to translate Chateau Br’iand’s memoirs, alternately refered to as “confessions of a dead man,” or “memoirs from the grave,” (or Tales from the Crypt?) This incidental project is intended to foreshadow the late films of Hector Mann that are due to appear shortly.
The translation project is interrupted by a letter from someone claiming to be Hector Mann’s wife. The letter claims that Hector is still alive, and in his nineties, and the prof should drop everything and come to New Mexico to see him.
The prof doesn’t believe the letter. He demands proof.
One night a woman named Alma shows up at his house and pleads for him to come to New Mexico to meet Hector. Alma is pretty, apart from half her face being blotched by a portwine stain birthmark. This birthmark gives her a secret power over people to see into their souls. She and the professor then give us a cliffnotesque analysis of Hawthorne's The Birthmark. Despite the fact that the professor is independently wealthy now, and has nothing to do but indulge his grief and translate french tomes, he refuses to go with Alma for a last chance opportunity to meet the mysteriously vanished comic genius he had spent half of the last year and absorbedly studying. Maybe he would have gone if he had been in a better mood. But he was in a lousey mood, having skid off a rainslick road earlier in the evening, which dented his car. The rain is still falling, hitting the roof like an "onslaught of bullets" Alma pulls a gun. The prof says something like “go ahead and shoot, you’ll be doing me a favor.” He takes the gun and points it at his own head to distinguish himself from Humphery Bogart in Cassablanca. He believes the gun isn’t loaded. To call the woman’s bluff, he pulls the trigger, or tries to but the safety catch is on. And the gun of course, was loaded. Realizing that he almost blew his brains out, he comes to his senses and has sex with Alma and the two of them go to New Mexico to meet Hector Mann. Their romance is like "the collision of two planets at the edge of space."
During the plane flight, Alma tells what happened to Hector since his disappearance in 1929. Hector had been seeing two women. He loved one of the women passionately, and the other he loved platonically, but was having sex with her anyway. He’s about to marry the woman he loves passionately, the great love of his life, when the platonic love announces she’s pregnant. Hector decides he must call of the wedding and do the honorable thing. His fiancé then accidently/on purpose shoots the pregnant woman and Hector buries the body and flees.
As a penance for causing inadvertently the death of his good friend and sometimes bedmate, Hector vows never to make movies again, though it wasn’t making movies that got him into this predicament.
Hector then finds himself drawn to the dead girl’s hometown, and he goes to work for the dead girl’s father. He loves the dead girl’s sister, and she falls in love with him too, but the moment the two of them realize they’re both in love, Hector realizes the romance can never be, and so he runs away again.
Hector then becomes a live sex performer, until his partner recognizes him as being the obscure mysteriously vanished film comic, and so Hector runs away again.
He meets the woman he will eventually marry during a bank robbery when he stops a bullet intended for her.
He assumes a new name, marries, has a son, and is happy until the kid dies. Hector realizes that the only way he can survive the loss is to make movies again, but he swore not to. His wife is rich. So he compromises, and spends the rest of his life making movies with the intent that no one would ever see them. Alma’s father was the camera man, Alma’s mother was one of the actresses. Hector had in his will that the films must be destroyed within 24 hours of his death. So the purpose in bringing the professor out to Mexico was so that there would be an academic witness to the films. But he arrives late, meets Hector, and gets to watch one film. This is another one of those imagined movies, praised by the viewer for perfections that don’t have be realized.
It concludes with the prof finding hector’s journal while the films burn. The novel ends with a kind of Viking funeral. Mann’s wife dies, Alma (the soul) dies, and the films are destroyed in a bonfire of the vanities. And the events themselves are undone with a bit of postmodern smoke and mirrors suggesting they hadn’t happened in the first place, or might be about to happen, like those 1950’s horror films that end with a Dus Ex Machina rescue from utter disaster by the protagonist waking from a dream, only to witness the recommencement of the film’s opening.
Some stretches of writing are so bad, they seem the literary equivalent of a pratfall in a silent comedy, like an actor who lost his step and is gyrating to keep from falling on his face. And yet, there’s a self-awareness of what is valuable and important in a work of art, as articulately expressed in the critical evaluations of the non-existent films. And so the book dwells on depression and solipsistic art created for the purpose of therapy or penance, meditating on its own failures, and laughing at them. Or at the reader.
Interesting book.


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Finished Reading
February 25, 2014 – Shelved

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