Auster’s tenth novel is one of his finest: an elegant meditation on the question of whether an artist or his public “owns” the work he creates, and a thickly plotted succession of interlocking mysteries reminiscent of his highly praised New York Trilogy (The Locked Room, 1986, etc.).
Narrator David Zimmer is a professor of comparative literature at a small Vermont college with an impressive resumé and a promising academic future, until his wife and young sons perish in a 1985 plane crash. Following an extended period of drunken despair (eloquently and harrowingly described), Zimmer indulges a casual interest in obscure silent film comedian hector Mann, whose disappearance in 1929 has never been explained. David researches and writes a book about Mann’s films (occasioning several brilliant set pieces summarizing their contents), and in 1988 receives a letter from New Mexico informing him that Hector Mann is still alive, and is interested in meeting David. The novel picks up dizzying speed as that letter (ostensibly sent by Mann’s protective wife Frieda Spelling) is followed by the appearance of Alma Grund (a beautiful young woman despite a disfiguring facial birthmark), who brings David to the (now nonagenarian) Mann’s southwestern ranch, spins a lavish tale of scandal and self-exile that fills in a 60-year gap, and compulsively recapitulates the former comedian’s various fateful ordeals, leaving Zimmer once again bereaved and alone. The heavy excess of plot never feels arbitrary or contrived, because Auster (Timbuktu, 1999, etc.) writes with such persuasive directness about both Zimmer’s conflicted death-in-life and efforts to get beyond it, and Mann’s understandably buried past and quiet desperation to order and give meaning to—and eventually extinguish—his accident-strewn personal history. Further dimensions are added by Zimmer’s ironically thematically related intellectual pursuits, particularly his fascination with French writer Chateaubriand’s elusive, many-leveled autobiography.
In many ways, a summa of Auster’s entire oeuvre, and a gripping and immensely satisfying novel in its own right.