The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

I still have goosebumps from this one, and as I write the title above, they’re coming back with renewed force.

This man writes and when you’re done reading him you can’t quite explain what he said, but the feeling lingers on like somewhere deep inside you he’s changed the way you think. Somewhere inside, you’ve understood. Many days later perhaps you find yourself in a contemplative mood thinking about David Zimmer and his life, about Hector Mann and his life and I suppose about yourself and your life.

The writing itself disappointed me to start with. I started drawing analogies to a bored Stephen King but now that I think about it, why draw attention to the style when what you have to say can be said so simply. I guess after the enormous success that Paul Auster has enjoyed it’s going to be a bit hard for him to write with the same grit as he did the New York Trilogy, but that’s okay I guess. He still manages to walk a bizarre line between philosophy and potboiler, seemingly at home in both environments.

Don’t read further unless you’ve read the book (available here) as they’re called spoilers for a good reason.

The book itself deals with Zimmer’s efforts to write about Hector Mann, a silent-era comedian now presumed dead. Auster tells the story from many angles, one from Zimmer’s point-of-view and many from the totally unreliable points of view of gossip columnists from the 1920s. An interesting way to tell a story. Hector Mann himself is a screen name with a fictitious past and after he leaves Hollywood he retroactively visits all the places he was alleged to have been from, reliving a bizarre time-warped history, bumping into people connected to his past, walking the knife-edge of chance, turning the fiction into reality. And then when Zimmer goes to visit him he’s confronted with the most heartbreakingly beautiful work of art, the destruction of Hector Mann’s unreleased films. The theme of “if a tree falls in a forest” is repeated in many motifs in this part of the book. Is art art if no one ever sees it? The only person who gets the girl is Martin Frost, and he typed her out of thin her, turning illusion into flesh and blood.
Auster meditates on the fragility of “reality” and whether everything is just an illusion in the end. The revelation that Zimmer died without ever knowing whether Alma managed to save the films is probably the finest line to ever end a book. “I live with that hope”, it says.
The themes of random chance, loss, hope and the fragility of things are beautifully wound together in a very aptly titled book. If things don’t make sense, are they real?
This is one guy who when I read I get the impression that he sat down and wrote the first words knowing exactly what he wanted to say, and he says it without meandering subplots or halfbaked characters.