The Book of Illusions
A Novel by Paul Auster
2002 / 321 Pages
The Setup: Vermont professor David Zimmer is a broken man. The protagonist of Paul Auster’s 10th novel, The Book of Illusions, hits a period in which life seemed to be working aggressively against him. After his wife and sons are killed in an airplane crash, Zimmer becomes an alcoholic recluse, fond of emptying his bottle of sleeping pills into his palm, contemplating his next move. (from the book jacket)
The moment after I read the last sentence printed in “The Book of Illusions” I immediately thought to myself “Damn, I’ve got to read everything Paul Auster has written.” Nothing much even happened over the course of the novel, but boy oh boy did a lot go on.
On the surface, Auster is telling the story of a Vermont professor named David Zimmer who recently has tragically lost his wife and two young children in a plane crash and is slowly beginning to rebuild his life. One night, quite accidentally, Zimmer comes across a short silent film starring a little known comedic actor named Hector Mann. Zimmer becomes obsessed with his body of work and travels the globe to track down and watch all of his films and even writes an academic study of them.
It just so happens that Hector Mann disappeared mysteriously one day back at the height of his career and after all these years he’s presumed dead. After Zimmer’s book is published however, he receives a letter from a woman claiming to be Hector’s wife stating that Hector would like to meet him. Zimmer doesn’t believe it at first, but eventually he’s persuaded to investigate the matter further.
The undercurrent to the novel hints at extinction, with Auster having Zimmer question at one point that if a man lives a life that nobody else notices, did he really live at all? Everything eventually dies, whether it be Hector’s film career, the entire silent film industry, Zimmer’s wife and children, or you and I. In world where everything dies, how does one find a meaning to live?
The answer for Zimmer seems to come in the form of human connections and a budding new romance with a strange woman who is also connected to Hector. Does love conquer all? Perhaps not, but it does make a lot of things much more tolerable.
In that regard, as much that the novel is about extinction, it is also about redemption and rebirth. Zimmer’s rebirth after the loss of his wife and children, Hector’s supposed rebirth after vanishing from Hollywood, Hector’s silent films which Zimmer’s book has helped a new generation rediscover. So yeah, we all die, but we live on through the legacy we leave behind for those who follow us to unearth. Which brings us right back around full circle to Zimmer’s initial question: if a man lives a life that nobody else notices, did he really live at all?
The illusions Auster builds up over the course of the novel are so damn convincing that at several different points while reading I had to check to see if anything I was digesting was based in fact. Auster spellbindingly blurs and blends several themes and plot threads together, but there are a few slower moments that could have been broken up better.
Near the beginning of the novel a very long chapter is devoted to Zimmer’s academic break down of Hector Mann’s silent films. While this history added to the overall story, it would have been easier to digest in smaller pieces interspersed within the main narrative rather than all at once. Near the end of the novel another entire chapter follows a similar format with nearly the same results.
Having never read anything else by Auster I don’t’ have a good sense how indicative of the kind of novel he writes “The Book Illusions” is. That said, I enjoyed it enough to want to find out.