The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

Henry Holt & Co.  2002 336 pp. 25.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


A man loses his loved ones in a senseless accident, inherits money, and suddenly finds himself wealthy, grieving, and directionless.  He decides to take a trip.

Paul Auster has used this narrative device more than once, and he returns to it again in his familiarly absorbing tenth novel, The Book of Illusions.

In 1985, following the horrific loss of his family, David Zimmer was inconsolable.  A professor of comparative literature at Hampton College in Vermont, he arranged a leave of absence.  Wallowing drunkenly in his grief, Zimmer disappeared into mindless television surfing until, one night, he happened on a film by Hector Mann, an obscure silent film comedian.  For the first time in months, against his will, David Zimmer found himself laughing.

No film scholar, Zimmer nevertheless decided to pursue the source of his emotional salvation.  Mann’s career was seemingly lost to the combustible vagaries of celluloid.  However, in 1981, copies of all twelve of his silent films mysteriously appeared, posted to film archives in the U.S. and Europe.  Suddenly rich from a life insurance payout, on a leave of absence from teaching, Zimmer decided to search out the films of Hector Mann.

Ordinarily, Zimmer found film wearisome.  “Too much was given, I felt, not enough was left to the viewer’s imagination, and the paradox was that the closer movies came to simulating reality, the worse they failed at representing the world, which is in us as much as it is around us.”

Silent, black-and-white films achieved sufficient distance for Zimmer, for  “the flat screen was the world, and it existed in two dimensions.  The third dimension was in our head.”

His publication of The Silent World of Hector Mann arrived to little notice, understandably for a book about a minor film comedian born in 1900 and, who had disappeared altogether in 1929.  Until one day, a letter arrives in the mail . . .

One of the threads running through all of Auster’s work, from The New York Trilogy to The Music of Chance and beyond, is the inexplicable existence of accident and coincidence in the world, “the mutinous unpredictability of matter.”  Zimmer idly reads Chateaubriand at the same time that a friend in another town is writing him a letter with an offer to do a translation of Chateaubriand’s autobiography.  Had Hector Mann not had a flat tire, his fiancé would have never met his girlfriend. Is there an order beneath the seeming randomness of the world that is responsible for the direction of our lives?  Auster’s oeuvre is a continual meditation on this one question.

Philosophy’s fine, but you’ve got to have a story, and this one is told in an accomplished blend of dense narration, summaries of numerous films, as well as cryptic letters and intense telephone calls.  Throughout, Zimmer finds himself uncertain whether the films he sees bring meaning to his life or whether his life is merely the occasion for the illumination—in both senses—of watching a film.

This is Auster’s best book in years, the best since Moon Palace (where, incidentally, we first met Zimmer).  Like the films of Hector Mann, Auster’s most accomplished books concern the anguish of selfhood, and the puzzle of a world that seems simultaneously outside us and within us.  This book cries out not for reading, but for re-reading—a tale not to pass the time with but to live alongside.