Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Books - The Book of Illusions, by Paul Auster

Finally reading The Book of Illusions was, for me, a strange experience. I kept getting an odd sense of déjà vu. After all, although I only read this novel last week I have, in a way, been familiar with it for years.

Published in 2002, Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions tells two stories, or perhaps more. In the foreground, it’s the story of David, an academic trying hard to cope after the death of his family in a plane crash. Yet at the same time it tells the story of the silent film actor Hector Mann, whose work David discovers and loves in the depths of his depression. Hector Mann vanished back in the 1920s, and we follow David as he learns the truth about Hector’s life and disappearance. Beyond that, we also get the stories of several of Hector Mann’s films. It’s a fascinating, complex and clever book, so jammed packed full of stories that I kept on thinking what a great film it would make. Although perhaps any novel about a some lost films and a film maker ought to be in some way cinematic.

The novel was half familiar to me from the beginning because, four years ago, my all-time favourite singer Duke Special released an album entitled The Silent World of Hector Mann. This album, inspired by Auster’s novel, is a musical interpretation of the twelve silent films Hector Mann is supposed to have produced.  Each track is written by a different musician friend of the singer, and all are performed by Duke Special himself. Each track takes the name, theme and plot from a different one of Hector Mann’s films. It’s a beautiful album, including incredible songs such as ‘Mister Nobody’ and ‘Scandal’, and a fascinating tribute to The Book of Illusions. So I sat there reading the novel with a bizarre sense of déjà vu, because although I didn’t know the book, I knew from Duke Special’s album all the films the book describes. As Duke Special isn’t that well known an artist, and as his album came out about eight years after the novel itself, this obviously isn’t the typical reading experience. Nonetheless, I do think they work wonderfully side by side.

It’s a powerful and at times beautiful novel, if rather strange. I love the way the stories are told, the interlinking overcrossing stories. I like the mix of David and Hector’s stories, how we flick between them. The snippets we get from Hector’s life are fascinating, if strange, as though his life reflects his films. Various parts of the novel reminded me of the Tim Burton film Big Fish. Each little story of Hector’s life is bursting with interesting and strange characters, well developed even when they only appear briefly. I like how Hector is always filtered in our vision of him, either through his films, through David’s research, or through what Alma tells David. We rarely see him directly, and so he remains an enigmatic figure throughout.

I also like the characterisation of Alma and David. Frieda I didn’t feel entirely convinced by, but mostly because we don’t get to know her well enough. Alma is intriguing and three-dimensional, and although we never fully understand her it seems mostly because David doesn’t either. David himself is a very skilfully created character. His narrative voice is authentic, and we grow to understand his pain. The insights we get into David’s mind are well written and believable.

It is a moving, well-written, and gripping novel. So why then, I keep asking myself, do I not entirely like it?

I think it’s in part to do with the ending. It is rather annoying, for the purpose of reviewing books (and desperately attempting to avoid spoilers), that I always seem to have a problem with the endings of novels. I suppose, for me, endings can make or break a book. I tend to judge novels on how well the closing chapters are carried out. A brilliant ending to a fairly decent novel can make that novel fantastic, while a poor ending of a good novel can to me let the whole thing down. And the ending of The Book of Illusions, as with various other bits of the novel, just feels a little overdone to me. I can’t explain more without giving it all away, but suffice to say I like the book, but am not sure I like how it ends.

Likewise, there is something strangely surreal about the book. At several points I found myself a bit unconvinced, thinking, well this would simply never happen. Parts of the novel feel to me ridiculous, implausible, even melodramatic. By the end of the book, however, I think I sort of grew to appreciate these elements in the novel. It made it a little like an alternative film, like something Hector Mann himself would have created. Still, I was more willing to forgive the strangeness of Hector’s life story than I was the sometimes surreal nature of the novel’s foregrounded plot. A good example is the strange scene in which David and Alma meet. To me, it borders on ridiculous. A cinematic and bizarre life seems appropriate and believable for Hector Mann, but less so for the narrator David.

Regardless, The Book of Illusions is an enjoyable and engaging book. I suggest you read it playing Duke Special’s The Silent World of Hector Mann in the background.

Greatest strength: The complexity of the novel’s multiple stories, and the way they interweave with one another.

Greatest weakness: To me, the ending was weak. To say exactly what I disliked about it would be to give it away, but suffice to say I would have ended it differently.

Let’s finish on a quote: That was how things stood for me when Hector Mann unexpectedly walked into my life. I had no idea who he was, had never even stumbled across a reference to his name, but one night just before the start of winter, I happened to see a clip from one of his old films on television, and it made me laugh. That might not sound important, but it was the first time I had laughed at anything since June.

Next week: The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, by Denis Thériault

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