Before and After the Disaster: The Senses of History in Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies and Man in the Dark
It is hard to define Auster’s approach to history in his writing. In Auster scholarship the issue is often tacitly supplanted by another one that figures more prominently in the postmodern context, namely his approach to reality. Although the two issues are to some extent interrelated, they have different implications and consequences for engaged analysis of his writing. One reason why reality has become a prominent issue in mainstream Auster criticism is because Auster’s works—especially the early ones (such as The New York Trilogy)—display a strong concern with language and textuality and evoke a kind of postmodern distrust of representation. Such features seem coincident with a (quasi-)poststructuralist account in which the notion of reality, alongside the notion of authorship, gives way to the endless multiplication of signs and simulacra. This account did not sound problematic in its early stage, when, for instance, Alison Russell claimed that ‘The New York Trilogy is nomadic in nature: the semantic journey never ends but consists of a never-ending loop of arrivals and departures’. However, as moves in similar directions became a norm, epiphenomena began to surface. Shifting their position, critics like James Peacock believed that the initial period of linguistic preoccupations in Auster scholarship helped strengthen an impression of solipsism or even nihilism, namely that ‘there can be no reality beyond the self-ratifying circuitry of the texts’. Of course one may disagree with Peacock, but the overall development of the (quasi-)poststructuralist reading of Auster indeed has an unexpected adverse effect: for all its theoretical sophistication the reading has reached saturation and has no real power to resist the tendency to reinstate the dichotomy between reality and fiction. While problematising the notion of reality, it falls prey to a set of assumptions it critiques; that is, it slips toward the other pole of fictionality and unwittingly reduces the meaning of reality in Auster’s writing. As a consequence, Auster’s engagement with the material and the historical has for a long time been marginalised and disconnected from his textual inventions and explorations of interiority.
A more careful reading—including a truly deconstructive reading—of Auster should note the risk that a reversal of established notions and beliefs may end up repeating their mistakes. If the notion of reality is susceptible to abstraction and reduction, then what about history? One reason why the latter does not come to the fore in mainstream Auster criticism is because the senses of history are diffused throughout Auster’s writing and also more deeply embedded in it. Blurring the boundaries between the textual and the material, history does not lend itself so easily to conceptualisation. Its complexity helps to form diverse directions for analysing its relations to narrative. Weisenburger’s 1994 essay on Moon Palace, for example, underscores the challenges posed by the story to genealogy and linear historical time. He regards Auster’s use of chance events as a resistance to the traditional conception of temporality, which is essentially grounded in the power of determinism and hierarchy. ‘Traditional hierarchies of value,’ he claims, ‘have nothing, necessarily, to do with such chance transitions. In a still greater extension of these problems, Auster puts historiographic representation on the same uncertain ground by disclosing that Sol Barber’s nationally acclaimed scholarly “histories” are the phantasmic products of his own lack of, or quest for, a father […].’ Also insightful is Martin Butler and Jens Martin Gurr’s interpretation of Travels in the Scriptorium, which highlights the novel’s engagement with American politics, such as the ‘War on Terror’. Reconsidering Auster’s metafictional strategies, Butler and Gurr explore the hidden link between Mr. Blank and the story he reads in his cell. As they point out, the framed story, purportedly written by John Trause (a character in Oracle Night), has been associated with the McCarthy era in Oracle Night. Hence its reappearance in Travels can be viewed as a renewal or rewrite of the political and historical import it carries: ‘anyone returning to Oracle Night after having read Travels in the Scriptorium […] cannot fail to read references to the war on Communism, McCarthy and “all the sinister things that were going on then” in the light of the “war on terror”, the Bush Administration and all the sinister things that are going on now’. Similarly, in Leviathan and Man in the Dark there are also framed narratives that not only imply but inventively configure historical subtexts to suggest various meanings and associations. Discussing the ‘hypodiegetic stories’ in Moon Palace, Travels in the Scriptorium and Man in the Dark, Jesús Ángel González remarks that ‘Auster creates alternative Americas to question well-known American myths and archetypes, in particular as they relate to the origins of the myths in the creation of the country’. I partly agree with this formulation. The ‘alternative Americas’ portrayed in these novels may be perceived as cases of what is called alternate (or alternative) history and in a way illustrate Auster’s approach to history as well as his engagement with contemporary America. But while it is doubtless important to register the socio-historical potential of these embedded micro-narratives about alternative Americas (in particular their potential to contest grand national myths), there are other, more obscure senses of history in Auster’s writing—ones that do not often surface upon first reading.
The present essay is therefore an attempt to draw attention to them. Over and above the narrative strategies mentioned above (no doubt Auster’s stock-in-trade), the philosophical and affective implications of history need to be brought to the fore and given more careful consideration. In other words, the focus of this essay is not on the most prominent feature shared by the story and history, namely their strong dependence on narration. Instead, the focus is on the complex, often heterogeneous, forces that history exerts on the specific economy of continuity and break in narrative. The pressure of these forces is in fact not uncommon in Auster’s later, post-9/11 works, and the resulting tension and subtle undercurrents are perceptible in The Brooklyn Follies and Man in the Dark. To elucidate the matter, I divide my discussion into two sections; each offers a unique perspective from which the meaning and function of history can be uncovered, expanded, or redefined. In connection with the above-mentioned novels, what kind of an interruption and a burden can history become? How does it unsettle our senses of time and existence? And how does narrative mediate its forces and construct the relationship between discourse and affect? These questions hint at two lines of thinking that will be threaded throughout the essay. I develop them along with my readings of Stanley Cavell and Maurice Blanchot. Needless to say, an examination of the whole of the two thinkers’ ideas is beyond the scope of this essay—nor is it its aim—but it is worthwhile to put their reflections on history into critical engagement with Auster’s works. Notably, in Cavell as well as in Blanchot history bespeaks something endlessly present and absent. With Cavell this paradox bears on what he calls the ordinary; with Blanchot on what he calls the disaster. The implication is that, if we take history simply as a discourse severed from genuine experience, we will never truly tune into the ravages of existence, its rupturable fragility; nor will we perceive its tenacious continuation. A rethinking of history, then, should involve a rethinking of our relations to both the ordinary and the disastrous. This, I think, is what Auster’s post-9/11 novels want to explore. The Brooklyn Follies’s allusion to the disaster is juxtaposed with its depiction of people pursuing a dream of an ordinary yet also potentially perfect community, suggesting irresolvable tensions between history, myth and life. Man in the Dark, on the other hand, contains performative intricacies that seek to derive meaning from those unknown histories of the other and, by doing so, bring meaning back to life in the aftermath of the disaster. Both novels stage the conjunction of different categories of experience (for instance, the actual and the virtual, the verbal and the nonverbal), whose psychological impact on the unfolding of historical consciousness in writing should not be overlooked. Because this unfolding is a dynamic process, it requires us to look more closely at how it is structured and configured in each novel. Put otherwise, the senses of history emerge from every singular enactment, deferral and cessation of narrative events (and, of course, alongside our reception of them).
The Ordinary and the Disastrous
This first section focuses on the interruptive force of history in The Brooklyn Follies. I approach the issue by considering how a dialectic of ordinariness and extraordinariness is played out in the novel. This is crucial to our understanding not only of its ending but also of its whole thematic structure. The way in which the novel juxtaposes divergent aspects of human experience—situating them in the gap between American utopianism and tragedy—indicates a thoughtful treatment of the relationships between fiction and history, between individual and communal lives. Granted, the double motifs, deeply rooted in American literary tradition, are not unique to Auster, but his treatment—for instance, setting a post-9/11 novel on the eve of that disastrous event, and (somewhat surprisingly) spending a good many of its pages describing a quasi-utopian experiment—is noteworthy. The jarring disparities between the essential and the ephemeral, between the continuous and the discontinuous, are writ large in the narrative montage created by The Brooklyn Follies. The prospect of their resolution has never been seriously discredited until the last moment when Nathan Glass, the narrator of the novel, alludes to the disastrous event looming around the corner:
It was eight o’clock when I stepped out onto the street, eight o’clock on the morning of September 11, 2001—just forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Just two hours after that, the smoke of three thousand incinerated bodied would drift over toward Brooklyn and come pouring down on us in a white cloud of ashes and death.
But for now it was still eight o’clock, and as I walked along the avenue under that brilliant blue sky, I was happy, my friends, as happy as any man who had ever lived.
Nathan’s disinclination to name the event is palpable, and the way in which he contrasts the mood before the happening of the event with that after it is thought-provoking. The fleeting state of happiness, ensuing from his recovery from a sudden attack of chest pain, may be nothing compared with the traumas of 9/11. Yet the question from the start is whether one can be compared with another. It seems that such an abrupt ending of The Brooklyn Follies is intended precisely for the implication of the alienating force of history, which originates from an indescribable collision of two incommensurable moods or indeed worlds, that is, a quasi-utopian future that has already passed and a traumatic past that is to come. Their temporal displacement is part of the inversion that Auster’s counter-narrative attempts to achieve; and although incommensurability may lead one to think of the two worlds—the ordinary and the extraordinary—as insulated from each other, the inversion in fact hinges on a dialectical process through which the force of history can possibly be mediated. Let me explain what that means.
History does not simply designate events that are actualised and chronicled in a linear fashion. I said so not only because, as William Faulkner told us, the past is neither dead nor past, but also because our modern conception of history in fact remains rather vague or even confused. For one thing, we can barely conceive, and perhaps have lost the ability to conceive, the scale of an event and our connection with it (say our proximity to or distance from it). The problem is getting more and more acute in an age dominated by media and terror. And one of its consequences is that each present moment, hence any moment to come, may be pregnant with historical significance. That this significance is no longer attached to something occurring in the remote past is, of course, not a completely new notion. Yet at a more fundamental level it means that what we call history can turn into an unpredictable and interruptive force, and that its significance lies not so much in its intelligibility as in its explosiveness. The Brooklyn Follies is in this light an attempt to capture this feature of history, and, paradoxically, to withhold its full embodiment. For should it be fully ‘covered’—summarised and explained, defined and categorised—its significance would rather be undermined, and our experience of it would be less than genuine. (That is why conventional historiography and journalism, although two separate fields, have a shared goal of (re)production, the former with regard to knowledge, the latter images. Perhaps the defense mechanism of collective memory requires this sort of repetition compulsion, but in many cases its most salient effect on individuals is, unfortunately, desensitisation.)
However, if conventional approaches (and stimuli) fall short, what else may be left for Auster to employ? He certainly cannot abandon the indispensable medium for writing, namely language, so changes must be made in terms of the way it functions, namely the way it expresses that peculiar sense of historical explosiveness. To facilitate its expression, he shifts the focus of narration from the disastrous event that has come to pass in actuality to some apparently irrelevant and, let us say, ordinary events that happen prior to it. This is not just a narrative strategy. It produces an inverted thematic structure that amplifies a kind of existential polarity or asymmetry in the experience of America. After all, what seems irrelevant—say the daily adventures and mishaps Nathan and other characters encounter, as well as the underlying idea of ‘Hotel Existence’ they together explore in dialogue and in action—can as a whole be seen as a pertinent counterpoint to the catastrophe merely alluded to in the last passage of the novel. One might say that those events of daily communal life, let alone the idea of ‘Hotel Existence’, hark back to a kind of American utopianism. Perhaps in a sense they do. Yet Nathan’s fragmentary account of them is in fact richer and more ambiguous. And if his account constitutes an inversion of the major disaster in American history, it is not because it embraces a timeless future (as envisioned in utopian socialism), but because it provides a unique experience—one that brings us back to the idea of America, whose history is embedded in one’s reception of Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Hawthorne and so forth, and consequently projected into one’s way of life as well as involvement with others. Accordingly, the disaster in question is suspended as a moment to come. This kind of history or temporal existence recalls the ordinary pictured in Cavell’s philosophy. To further explore its presence and function in The Brooklyn Follies, we need to turn to a conversation between three characters in the novel, Nathan, his nephew Tom Wood, and their friend Harry Brightman.
The conversation takes place in a French restaurant in Brooklyn on 27 May 2000. It is recorded in a section named ‘A Night of Eating and Drinking’. I call it a record because, except a short description introducing the scene, it contains almost nothing but passages of dialogue, which reads like a script. Corresponding to this impression is the statement in that description: ‘Once the conversation begins, further stage directions will be kept to a minimum. It is the author’s opinion that only the words spoken by the above-mentioned characters are of any importance to the narrative’ (BF, 99). Here what is spotlighted is the staging of a discursive space that seems to stand apart from other sections. It begins with Tom’s expression of dissatisfaction with the world, the ‘it’ (BF, 100) that Harry asks him to clarify. From ‘the big black hole’ (BF, 100) to ‘the horrible place this country has turned into’ (BF, 101), it becomes clear that he is talking about the actual America that disappoints him. At the same time, he believes all of them, willy-nilly, ‘are right in the thick of it’ (BF, 100). The question is whether one can escape and where one can go. On the one hand, it is true that there is no way out. As Harry says to Tom, ‘Out? And where are you going to go?’ (BF, 101). On the other hand, new questions ensue: Can we find another way of living here? Can we reinvent America? This is the issue addressed in Tom’s undergraduate thesis on Thoreau and Poe, which is recalled by his uncle Nathan during the talk:
A place to live life on your own terms. That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it? ‘Imaginary Edens’ revisited. But in order to do that, you have to be willing to reject society. That’s what you told me. It was a long time ago, but I think you also used the word courage. Do you have the courage, Tom? Does any one of us have the courage to do that?
We should not take these thoughts at face value or at the moment rush to any conclusions; besides, they end in questions. I suggest that we consider the circumstances under which they are presented and what effects they produce. Seven years ago, when Tom discusses his thesis with Nathan, he is going to be a promising postgraduate student. According to him, the similarity between Poe and Thoreau is that ‘each took it upon himself to reinvent America’ (BF, 16). He notes in their works the presence of ‘the ideal room, the ideal house, and the ideal landscape’ (BF, 15). What is more, given the times they lived in, it is self-evident that they experienced two Americas. In Tom’s words, ‘Both men believed in America, and both men believed that America had gone to hell, that it was being crushed to death by an ever-growing mountain of machines and money’ (BF, 16). Of course, Poe is in many aspects not a transcendentalist, but the double world both men face points to a fundamental discrepancy that preoccupies anyone who believes (or once believed) in the possibility of America. There is no reason not to believe that Tom once held such a belief. Then, seven years later, when Nathan by accident finds him working in Harry’s bookshop, he has already abandoned his doctoral dissertation on Melville’s epic poem Clarel. ‘I bit off more than I could chew, Uncle Nat’ (BF, 22). This is what he tells Nathan. To add to Nathan’s surprise, his prior job is driving a taxi in New York. Does the contrast (if we could call it a contrast) mean that Tom’s dream has been crushed, and that he has turned himself into one of those living in what Thoreau calls ‘quiet desperation’?
I ask this question because we are apt to look at Tom’s change as his failure; and we may connect his apparently pessimistic view of the world, as expressed in the dinner conversation mentioned above, with his own misfortunes. But the connection is unfounded. Tom does not seem to be the kind of person who merely complains and does nothing about his life, nor does he cling to a past that has become unliveable. Granted, a part of him is chagrined by the current state of things, but this is not the whole picture: ‘another part of him thought that perhaps this job would do him some good, that if he paid attention to what he was doing and why he was doing it, the cab would teach him lessons that couldn’t be learned anywhere else’ (BF, 25). In other words, he wants to live with hope, to undergo what comes his way. If we think this is pure self-deception or feeble compromise, then we are underestimating (our capacity for receiving) what life offers us. Tom’s riffs on ‘the ontological value of the cabbie’s life’ (BF, 30), such as ‘speculating on such questions as spiritual strength and importance of finding one’s path through patience and humility’ (BF, 27), albeit self-mocking, might be a sly confession—a confession of his way of finding a second chance in day-to-day lived experience. And we cannot exclude the possibility that doing this job opens up a way of knowing the world (not least the city and the people living in it), as well as a way of thinking (say Tom’s seemingly facetious argument about ‘real transcendence’ (BF, 31). Hence if the change from Dr. Thumb (a nickname given by Nathan) to a taxi driver means ‘missed possibility’, which Cavell associates with ‘the sense of our leading lives of what they [Emerson and Thoreau] call quiet desperation’, it also suggests that, as long as Tom does not take the job to seal his fate, possibility or possibilities (though presently not clear to him) can be regained from an ‘Emersonian loss’.
Tom’s case illustrates what is at once strange and ordinary about the experience of America. Its reinvention is a historical process that lies beneath the apparent immutability of the mundane. This feature could extend to the whole of The Brooklyn Follies and perhaps explain why the book is lightly, but sometimes also ambiguously, toned, for it is at bottom also anxious about the possibilities of reinventing America in communal life and implicitly poses the question of whether the idea of America is too early or too late for us. Thus, when Nathan asks Tom if he has the courage to reject society, he is in fact asking whether we have the courage not to escape but to little by little change our condition. This signals the turn of their conversation. Tom does not immediately answer Nathan. It is Harry who then puts forward the idea of the Hotel Existence. In his opinion, ‘A hotel represented the promise of a better world, a place that was more than just a place, but an opportunity, a chance to live inside your dreams’ (BF, 102). There is no denying that Harry’s dreams in a sense smack of escapism—what Tom calls ‘Adolescent jerk-off material’ that is ‘getting us nowhere’ (BF, 106). Yet his definition of existence does lead us to a crucial point: ‘Existence was bigger than just life. It was everyone’s life all together’ (BF, 103). Tom does not challenge the existence part of Harry’s idea, which coincides with what he later declares (or in fact murmurs):
I want to live in a new way, that’s all. If I can’t change the world, then at least I can try to change myself. But I don’t want to do it alone. […] What’s my Hotel Existence, Harry? I don’t know, but maybe it has something to do with living with others, with getting away from this rathole of a city and sharing a life with people I love and respect.
What he has in mind is ‘a community’ (BF, 107), with Nathan, Harry, Flora (Harry’s demented daughter) and Rufus (a Jamaican assistant working in Harry’s bookshop) as its potential members. He also thinks about Aurora, his sister who has gone missing. The plan may sound no more practical than Harry’s juvenile heroism of rescuing children from the ravages of the Second World War. That said, from both men’s descriptions emerge what Nathan later calls ‘the principles of Hotel Existence’ (BF, 215). The significance of the principles is their emphasis on the meaning of existence or Mitsein, and furthermore on its attempt to use its own temporal as well as affective structure to counter or at least postpone the disastrous eruption of violence in history. Hence the promissory form of collectivity, as embodied in the idea of ‘Hotel Existence’, should not be read in nostalgic terms. (Even if nostalgia is present in the novel, it can only be for something that has never belonged to the past.) It is, I think, rather concerned with a renewal of collective experience, one embedded in the ‘common’, the ‘ordinary’, the ‘uneventful’, the ‘low’, the ‘near’—all that Cavell maintains a history may be interested in: ‘What is uneventful at one date and place is not the same as what is uneventful at another date and place, so that the translations of one to another may be knowable only to something we will call history’ (TOS, 193).
The split between a history of the uneventful and that of ‘flashing, dramatic events’ (TOS, 190), as registered in Cavell’s discussion of our conception of an event, takes on a different significance in Nathan’s account of what happens in the wake of the dinner conversation. On the one hand, Nathan and Tom’s reunion with Aurora’s daughter Lucy, as well as their efforts to take care of the girl and find her mother, suggests the importance of relating to others in everyday life and discovering in that relation the ethical purpose of change, however small it seems. As to the Chowder Inn that Nathan, Tom and Lucy stumble upon on their way to Burlington in June, it is not in itself out of the ordinary: the three of them simply have to find a place to stay while Nathan’s car is under repair. Yet, on the other hand, the inn is clearly an embodiment of the Hotel Existence; moreover, given the facts that it is planned to open for the Fourth of July, and that the threesome are welcomed as ‘the first paying customers in the history of the Chowder Inn’ (BF, 166), one may argue that its figurative significance has a lot to do with the historical development of a national consciousness. Accordingly, their early departure from the inn, before the Fourth of July, is not only ascribable to Harry’s untimely death but also at a deeper level indicative of the complex effects of history on Nathan’s account. History is not tantamount to historical discourse. The unrealised history of America is aligned not so much with a mythos as with a desire to renew ordinary, post-utopian experiences.
This desire is manifested in the writing of the novel per se, but it is at the same time also framed by the novel’s inverted thematic structure that can, as suggested above, insinuate a sort of historical explosiveness engendered by the disaster. This ambivalence allows the ordinary and the disastrous, the comic and the tragic, the past and the future, to engage in a dialectical process that comes to a standstill. Ultimately, a withdrawal from (con)sequential intelligibility characterises the inner action of the novel and enhances its affective import. It is instructive to go back to the last scene. Nathan’s proleptic allusion to the event on the morning of 11 September 2001, the very morning when he leaves the hospital—the attack of chest pain turns out not as serious as he thinks—and feels good about remaining alive, is, of course, not a result of premonition but of retrospection. And this is precisely where the narrative breaks off; it is as if two categories of experience, or indeed two kinds of history, simultaneously spread before us, demanding our response. But how to respond? The uncanny way in which things are juxtaposed is nothing but a challenge to our moral understanding. It recalls Cavell’s observation about the dialectic of ordinariness and extraordinariness:
The extraordinariness of what we accept as ordinary does not manifest its power over us until we are conscious at the same time of the ordinariness of the extraordinary. A stone on which this coupling breaks we might call a miracle or a holocaust, a departure from and within the ordinary that is not merely extraordinary, but irreversibly traumatic. (There may then be such a phenomenon as a retrospective trauma.)
Is what happens ‘forty-six minutes’ (BF, 306) after Nathan’s departure from hospital a departure from and within the ordinary? If so, his closing remarks might be seen as the manifestation of ‘a retrospective trauma’. Accordingly, the hospital scene, with detailed description of individual patients Nathan has met, betrays a struggle to forestall the rupture of the ordinary, to at least alleviate the pain it will have caused. In this respect, narration helps him (re)form his connection with the dead and the injured, for which exposure is a prerequisite. We should bear in mind that involvement in shared humane existence is at the same time exposure to it. It might beckon an ideal community, but that does not entail that it is immune to something horrible. ‘The worst has befallen, befalls everyday,’ Cavell writes in The Claim of Reason - ‘It has merely, so far as I know, not befallen me. Tragedy figures my exposure to history as my exposure to fortune or fate; comedy as my exposure to accident or luck. Each will have its way of figuring this as my exposure to nature; meaning, in the end, human nature.’ From this perspective, Nathan’s oblique reference to the impacts of that disastrous event is meant to trace the unnameable loss that has missed him. And these impacts will not fully unfold until later, that is, until one begins to understand what it means to go on living in an ordinary that has not only been ruptured but will return with an imperiled existence and a wounded community.
History in the Dark
By looking closely at The Brooklyn Follies, we can see how a peculiar sense of history emerges in its narrative. Delay in response to the disaster in fact reflects its tragic magnitude and particularly the sudden, explosive way in which it transpires. In this sense The Brooklyn Follies occupies an important place in Auster’s post-9/11 writings. Its engagement with the event implies a few interesting questions that can be further explored in our reading of Man in the Dark. The first question is whether or to what extent writing can accommodate the absolute horror of what has happened; the second is why writing refuses to turn itself into an explanation of what has happened; the third is how detours of memory and narrative function to mediate the link between life and history.
Unlike The Brooklyn Follies, Man in the Dark shifts to a smaller, domestic setting. Its narrator is August Brill, a retired book critic living now in Vermont with his daughter Miriam and his granddaughter Katya. Their place of residence is a curious reminder of the Chowder Inn in The Brooklyn Follies, which is also in Vermont. Yet the space in which the story unfolds is reserved primarily for the sorrows of life and ravages of war. All three are weighed down by the burdens of the past, and the most recent one is the death of Katya’s boyfriend Titus Small. This is revealed in the first few paragraphs of the novel; meanwhile, Brill refrains from providing more details. As he explains, ‘I think about Titus’s death often, the horrifying story of that death, the images of that death, the pulverizing consequences of that death on my grieving granddaughter, but I don’t want to go there now, I can’t go there now, I have to push it as far away from me as possible.’ As he lies in bed ‘looking up into the darkness’, he tells himself stories that can ‘prevent [him] from thinking about the things [he] would prefer to forget’ (MD, 2). But is he really able to forget them? Can forgetting be a deliberate act? Forgetting, as in sleep, is a true sign of happiness. By contrast, when one wants to forget something, one is in fact haunted by it, which lingers on as a present that cannot be fully present, a present that has always already been interrupted by a disastrous moment that makes time collapse. And this collapse—or in Blanchot’s words, the ‘infinite fall, fragile’—turns the past into an ‘infinitely deep pit into which, if there were any, events would fall one by one’. Every night Brill seems to be catapulted into such a black hole. Not surprisingly, he then starts a story by putting its protagonist in a hole: ‘Put a sleeping man in a hole, and then see what happens when he wakes up and tries to crawl out’ (MD, 2). This is the beginning of the story of Owen Brick, wherein the Iraq War, or the war on terror, is replaced by a second civil war in America. When the sergeant Tobak tells Brick that ‘America is fighting America’ (MD, 7), the latter is confused and disoriented. Brick does not know why and how he gets involved in this war, and Tobak’s reply is at once direct and enigmatic: ‘All new recruits come to us like that. […] that’s the way it is. One minute you’re living your life, and the next minute you’re in the war’ (MD, 7). It recalls Cavell’s observation that everyday we are exposed to history; the hole thus is an emblem of our exposure to the worst part of it. Meanwhile, the hole also connotes a partial loss of memory, as though exposure to history, however tragic, fails to illuminate our essential relationship to it. Hence, even though Brick is able to get out of the actual hole, he can neither understand nor accept what awaits him (his task) and what befalls him (his fate).
The story of Owen Brick is not just a political allegory. Its self-referentiality has a more profound implication than its plot reveals. To be sure, inventing an alternative America and laying bare its fictionality serve to illustrate how Auster uses metafictional techniques to engage with history and critique social reality. Yet we also need to consider how the story is embedded in Man in the Dark. This is important because the novel’s narrative is a structured whole that carries the burdens of the past; one part is not separate from another simply because they seem to operate on different planes. In other words, the birth, development and disintegration of the story are arranged in such a way as to indicate the flow of Brill’s consciousness, under which one may perceive subtle changes in his affective state. On the surface, the birth of the story is connected with his attempt to forget the death of Titus Small; at a deeper level, the story signifies his struggle with the ‘horrifying story’ and ‘images’ of that death. And ultimately this is a struggle with the burden of a history of afflictions. This history is a burden because it is excessive; that is, it blurs the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman, between the finite and the infinite, between the memorable and the immemorial. Not only is it distrustful of the totalising discourse of History; it even calls into question normative conceptions of experience. ‘We feel that there cannot be any experience of the disaster,’ Blanchot writes, ‘even if we were to understand disaster to be the ultimate experience. This is one of its features: it impoverishes all experience, withdraws from experience all authenticity; it keeps its vigil only when night watches without watching over anything.’ Blanchot’s formulation is a reminder of our (namely, the subject’s) inability to sustain the approach of disaster that always seems to be on its way and that may have already passed.
In Man in the Dark, what hints at the effect of the disaster is a series of detours and intervals of silence. Shuttling between the story he makes up in his head, his daytime conversations with Katya (which revolve mainly around the films they view together), and his reminiscences, Brill’s narration is an attempt to approach what is unapproachable. As suggested, what is at stake is a history of afflictions in war. It is then important to note that all suffering and mortal intensity involved in this history are associated with the other. Out of this arises the difficulty of enacting subjective experience (namely, the presence of the ‘I’) in writing, however authentic it is meant to be. Consequently, we see that the story of Owen Brick betrays its narrative purpose and comes to a halt; it ends with the killing of its protagonist, ‘who leaves the world in silence, with no chance to say a last word or think a last thought’ (MD, 96). As Brill explains, ‘Does it have to end that way? Yes, probably yes […] My subject tonight is war, and now that war has entered this house, I feel I would be insulting Titus and Katya if I softened the blow’ (MD, 97). His depiction of the last scene, where Brick is gunned down by a contingent of Federal troops, appears to be devoid of affect. Its grim matter-of-factness is intended to avoid cheapening the suffering of others. And herein lies the dilemma of how to imagine oneself in another’s death throes, to write oneself into it. For Blanchot, an experience of this sort of disaster is nothing but a secret forever eluding the subject, whose intellectual capacities tend to distort not only things of radical alterity but our (non-)relations with them. The writing of the disaster is thus not directly linked with a free subject; it is not restricted by the form and content of consciousness, nor controlled by the powers of representation and memory. It is why the disaster, as ‘an excess of experience’ (WD, 51), keeps watch over the ruins of our times, while such watching ‘does not illuminate with an increase of visibility, of reflecting brilliance’ (WD, 49). It is a history fading into darkness. Yet in Brill’s case, and in a majority of cases in contemporary history, a complicating factor is at play, that is, images. They are (re)produced for viewing; and viewing adds a new dimension to the intersection between history and life. In this light, one might say that Brill is not so much an enfeebled writer as a haunted viewer, and that his depiction of Brick’s death is inevitably a by-product of the shock of seeing (that is, viewing and witnessing) Titus Small being beheaded by terrorists in Iraq.
In the previous section I mentioned in passing that the proliferation of images could desensitise us to the horror of violence; this is, however, not the case with Man in the Dark. The novel not only emphasises the power of images but moreover turns that power inside out in its writing. When Small tells Brill that he decides to go to Iraq partly because he wants to ‘discover what it feels like to be part of history’ (MD, 142), no one will ever know that the decision can cost him his life. What eventually becomes part of history is a video showing the brutal murder of Small, who may never have grasped the meaning of history and why his life has to fall prey to its senseless course. Neither do Brill and Katya, who have never expected to watch on TV a public display of his murder. ‘Titus is no longer quite human. He has become the idea of a person, a person and not a person, a dead bleeding thing: une nature morte’ (MD, 145). Aside from this comment, Brill’s account is rendered in a descriptive style. It is as though the subject who details the content of the video is a nonexistent entity or a machine, like a camera eye. Meanwhile, his account creates a profound impact on the reader’s experience, and this impact is not simply visual or graphic. Because what we are exposed to are in fact not images but words, we are left with something endlessly approximating to the real. It contains in itself affective residues that transcend the visible and the finite: ‘Impossible to know how long it [the video] has lasted. Fifteen minutes. A thousand years’ (MD, 145). Thus, I do not think Brill’s depiction of death abandons the invisibility of the Blanchotian disaster. It is all too easy to conclude from its externalisation of another’s physical pain that the idea of presence is reinstated in the writing of Man in the Dark; in turn, for some, it is Auster’s early writings that contain the idea of absence. But this seems to me an oversimplification of both ideas. As said, the effect of the disaster is hidden in a series of detours and intervals of silence. Besides, an externalisation of another’s physical pain may also gesture toward silence, in the sense that this externalisation reduces the possibility of undue emotionalisation and instead underscores the significance of the body and its disfigurement in Brill’s visceral understanding of the history of afflictions.
It is his traumatic viewing of Small’s death—preceding the action of the novel—that heightens the tensions between body and discourse, between affect and meaning. Accordingly, all the detours taken by Brill in his narration can also be related to his efforts to moderate these tensions. Nearly passive in the midst of what Blanchot calls ‘nocturnal intensity’ (WD, 49), his mind drifts from the end of Brick’s story to the stories he hears from others. ‘War stories. Let your guard down for a moment, and they come rushing in on you, one by one by one …’ (MD, 97). In this short transitional passage the pronoun of the second person carries twofold implications: viewed as singular, the pronoun can signal a temporary departure of Brill’s consciousness from its first-person status; viewed as plural, it can imply an imagined involvement of readers or listeners. Both interpretations suggest that Brill is not simply immersed in his own consciousness. His recount of others’ experiences in war time opens up dialogues between the self and the other, between the narrator and the listener, between the past and the present. While astonishing details about suffering and death can still be found in these war stories, they are nevertheless filtered through a web of personal memories and interpersonal relations. The victims in the stories may be thought to be at the mercy of such troubled times as the Second World War and the Cold War—arrested and sent to the concentration camp, or separated from one’s family and forced to hide in anonymity—but their lives are not meaningless; they intersect with the lives of those who survive the merciless force of history, changing the direction of the latter or even creating the very condition of possibility for the latter. Therefore, despite Brill’s admission that these stories ‘hit [him] hard’ (MD, 100), their impact, as mediated through layers of recount, is different from that of the recorded decapitation of Small. In other words, conditioned by their discursive quality, the stories he hears from others are more open to, and also allow time for, reflection and understanding. Not surprisingly, what follows these stories is a long conversation between Brill and Katya, which helps to further open up the narrative space occupied by him. Recast in a dialogic and intimate form, his reminiscences are no longer his own. They provide a site where he and Katya can retrace threads that have been lost and unraveled in a collective history, and possibly retrieve the meaning of life in the aftermath of Small’s death. This, of course, does not mean that together they can find a satisfactory explanation for the tragedy of his death. But their conversation somehow enables Brill to finally return to Small’s story, ‘reliving the disaster [he’s] been struggling to avoid all night’ (MD, 138). It seems that going back and facing the past is the only way to move forward, as the past contains not only things unknown to the dead but also things unknown to the living. If a retrospective view of history always seeks knowledge of both, then the novel’s narrative follows alternative routes to explore what Blanchot calls ‘a surplus of knowledge’ (WD, 57). It is this surplus that remains open to the effect of the disaster and, however tortuously and laboriously, brings the latter back into life and thought.
In the above sections on The Brooklyn Follies and Man in the Dark, I have sought to demonstrate the structural connection between history and narrative, namely, how different senses of history are implied in the composition and organisation of narrative events. In The Brooklyn Follies there is an embedded structure that serves to highlight the interruptive force of history. It rests on a dialectic of the ordinary and the disastrous, which, however, does not operate in a Hegelian fashion—for both categories of experience are juxtaposed without being sublated into a higher sphere of existence or a totality of history. What guides the movement of the narrative is rather a desire whose ambivalence generates an assemblage of fragments and leads to a retrospective trauma. In this way the novel renders the coming of the disaster as a frozen moment, so as to enhance its explosiveness and avoid contriving an infelicitous representation of what is, strictly speaking, unrepresentable. Like Don DeLillo and Jonathan Safran Foer, Auster notes that any writing about 9/11 is problematic. A tangential approach is perhaps a requisite for explorations of its consequences. Hence, skirting around this black hole in American history, Man in the Dark devises a convoluted narrative to encompass various digressions and detours. Linking one narrative event with another, they point to the subject that the narrator does not want to touch upon. Structurally, the deferred return of the disaster involves a resonance between the beginning and end of the novel, namely, the image of the other’s death. Like the frozen moment in The Brooklyn Follies, it amplifies an affective implication of history in writing. Accordingly, Brill’s final depiction of Small’s death does not so much contradict the argument about unrepresentability as test the limits of writing as a form of witness.
Additionally, Auster uses literary forms and styles to develop and deepen the senses of history in his fiction. The strategic placement of dialogue, as exemplified in The Brooklyn Follies, disrupts the flow of monologic discourse, creating an intervening space in narrative where the characters begin to rediscover the relations between history and life, between the past and the present. Also notable is Auster’s intermedial prose, especially in terms of the way in which it derives historical nuances from films. Man in the Dark is a case in point, so are Sunset Park and 4321. Auster’s delineations of cinematic scenes—such as those from Ozu’s The Tokyo Story, Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin—are essential to the development of historical consciousness in his later writings. Not merely intertextual components, they possess a visual quality that entwines the ontological and historical import of cinematic events. These events are further entwined with the characters’ experiences and memories. Whether revelatory, therapeutic, or haunting, they bring them (and us) face to face with particular moments—moments that reside in the past and yet also seem to slip away from the past; moments that approach and yet also seem to withdraw from the disaster.
What lies at the heart of Auster’s approach to history is not so much a dichotomy between reality and fiction as an alternation of presence and absence. It is the latter that spurs the changing movement of narrative and helps us construe its irreducibility to knowledge and discourse. By opening itself to the effects of desire and trauma, narrative performs an intense work on the expression of a kind of historicity that is not explicitly present to us and yet has seeped into everyday life. If The Brooklyn Follies is about what is ordinary before the disaster, then Man in the Dark is about what is ordinary after the disaster. The former condition can in some sense be different from the latter, but both, by establishing a special relation with the disaster, help to reveal the heterogenous forces of history and their impacts on our temporal existence. Read as a pair, the two novels exemplify the ways in which the thematic structure and literary forms work together to produce the specific economy of continuity and break in narrative, and, further, to channel the forces of history through a reconstruction of experience. As I said at the beginning of this essay, for Auster, as for Cavell and Blanchot, history should not be severed from genuine experience. Despite the fact that there exist difficulties in representing historical experience, as well as in grasping its double-sidedness, Auster’s writing has always been seeking to open up the possibilities of our access to it.
Auster, Paul, The Brooklyn Follies (New York: Henry Holt, 2006)
—— Leviathan (London: Faber & Faber, 1993)
—— Man in the Dark (New York: Henry Holt, 2008; New York: Picador, 2009)
—— Moon Palace (London: Faber & Faber, 1989)
—— The New York Trilogy (London: Faber & Faber, 1987)
—— Oracle Night (New York: Henry Holt, 2003)
—— Sunset Park (New York: Henry Holt, 2010)
—— Travels in the Scriptorium (London: Faber & Faber, 2006)
—— 4321 (New York: Henry Holt, 2017)
Blanchot, Maurice, The Step Not Beyond, trans. Lycette Nelson (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992)
—— The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986)
Butler, Martin, and Jens Martin Gurr, ‘The Poetics and Politics of Metafiction: Reading Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium’, English Studies, 89.2 (2008), 195-209
Cavell, Stanley, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)
—— Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010)
—— Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)
González, Jesús Ángel, ‘“Another History”: Alternative Americas in Paul Auster’s Fiction’, Comparative American Studies: An International Journal, 9.1 (2011), pp. 21-34
Peacock, James, ‘The Father in the Ice: Paul Auster, Character, and Literary Ancestry’, Critique, 52 (2011), pp. 362-76
Russell, Alison, ‘Deconstructing The New York Trilogy: Paul Auster’s Anti-Detective Fiction’, Critique, 32.2 (1990), pp. 71-84
Weisenburger, Steven, ‘Inside Moon Palace’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 14.1 (1994), pp. 70-79
 Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 432.
 Maurice Blanchot, The Step Not Beyond, trans. Lycette Nelson (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), p. 13.
 Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. by Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), p. 51; hereafter abbreviated WD.