The “parallel worlds” visited and occupied by an aging intellectual’s troubled mind and heart assume intriguing metafictional form in Auster’s challenging novel.
The initially unidentified narrator, an insomniac, lures us into the book with the story he’s imagining: that of a noncombatant (Owen Brick) who finds himself pressed into service in a civil war that has violently divided an alternative present-day America. Owen’s mission, which he cannot choose to decline, is to enter the war-torn city of Wellington (formerly Worcester, Mass.) and assassinate the amoral recluse who has “invented” the war by dreaming it into being. As Owen, bedeviled by figures and memories from his youth, trudges toward his destiny, we learn the identity of the novel’s narrator. He is August Brill, a septuagenarian retired book critic crippled in an automobile accident and confined to a wheelchair; mourning the loss of his French wife Sonia, whom he had married, betrayed, lost, then reconciled with, until her death; living with his divorced daughter Miriam, an academic and Hawthorne scholar, and Miriam’s daughter Katya, still traumatized by the recent violent death of her sometime boyfriend Titus, a casualty of the Iraq War. Auster’s lucid prose and masterly command of his tricky narrative’s twists, turns and mirrorings keep us riveted to the pages, as the permutations of August Brill’s tortured progress toward self-understanding—and forgiveness—gather together and reconfigure elements from Auster’s previous fictions: seemingly innocent characters’ immurement in Kafkaesque nightmares (The New York Trilogy); a known world transfigured into a hollowed-out, depopulated shell (In the Country of Last Things); the testing of an ingenuous hero’s flawed powers (The Music of Chance). Auster pulls it all together brilliantly in a moving denouement that measures August Brill’s intellectual solipsism against the doomed Titus’s passionately declared need “To experience something that isn’t about me”—and finds wisdom and grace in both alternatives.
Probably Auster’s best novel, and a plaintive summa of all the books that—we now see—have gone into its making.