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Originally published Friday, September 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Man in the Dark": Don't shoot the messenger — unless he's the author within the novel

Paul Auster's new novel, "Man in the Dark," is a brilliant take on politics and the nature of consciousness, featuring an author who creates a character, then orders the character to assassinate his creator.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Paul Auster

Will read from "Man in the Dark" at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Microsoft Auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Presented by the Washington Center for the Book and the Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).

The man in the dark in the title of Paul Auster's new novel is August Brill, who combats insomnia by inventing stories, including one in which the main character is ordered to assassinate Brill, the writer.

"The story is about a man who must kill the person who created him," Brill writes, "and why pretend that I am not that person?"

A metafictional suicide wish perhaps? Not exactly, but once again, in "Man in the Dark" (Henry Holt, 180 pp., $23), Auster skirts the edge of derangement without quite going there, provoking and entertaining in brilliant fashion. Think "The Twilight Zone" blended with politics and a trace of the ontological.

A retired book critic, Brill lives with his daughter, Miriam, and granddaughter, Katya. All three are recovering from terrible losses: Brill from the recent death of his wife, Miriam from divorce and Katya from the death of her boyfriend, Titus, a truck driver in the Iraq War who was kidnapped and brutally murdered.

The chaos begets the story within the story, a conception that is at once grandiose and bizarre. Brill imagines parallel worlds for his character cum victim, Owen Brick. Brick, a magician by profession, is plucked from the actual U.S., post Sept. 11 and ensconced in the Iraq War, and is transported (passive verbs intended) to an alt-America that didn't suffer terrorist attacks or go to war in the Middle East. Instead, the country has descended into bloody civil war over the results of the 2000 presidential election. The only way for the suffering to end, military leaders conclude, is to kill the creator of the war: the storyteller.

Beyond page-turning intrigue, this is an ingenious setup: the disorientation of the interior story — with its dreamlike premise and creepy Big Brotherism — provides a potent framework for Brill's own suffering. The character, in effect, creates a therapeutic metaphor as a salve for his psychic wounds. Without this context, the 40 pages of dialogue between Brill and Katya near the end of the book, revealing the gritty details of the family tragedies, would seem contrived. Instead it is thoroughly absorbing.

Like the magician in his story within the story, Auster is the master of legerdemain, displaying deceptively simple narratives that twist and turn in unexpected ways. As in many of his previous novels (this is his twelfth), Auster innovates not for the sake of innovation but to get at the uniqueness of his characters and their stories. He also supplies one of the best opening lines to a novel in recent memory.

Auster provides as good an explanation as any of his own appeal as a writer in this passage in which an interrogator addresses the captive Brick: "There is no single reality, Corporal. There are many realities. There's no single world. There are many worlds, and they all run parallel to one another, worlds and anti-worlds, worlds and shadow-worlds, and each world is dreamed or imagined or written by someone in another world. Each world is the creation of a mind."

My only complaint is a selfish one: I wish the book was much longer than 180 pages — the better to get lost in Auster's hypnotic spell, which draws you into a literary maze and sets you marveling at how he will get you out.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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