An Impressionist Review of Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions

This is the kind of book that punches you, not unkindly, in the gut. A book about loss and redemption, sure. That’s the easy stuff kiddo. Death is almost a necessity for novelists – I mean, without death, what would the motivation for so many stories be? Auster presents another kind of death in his novel The Book of Illusions. The kind like in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler when Hedda burn’s Lovborg’s manuscript and cries out “I am burning your child.” The kind of death that makes writers gasp and artists cringe. At the center of Auster’s book is a crime that is larger than murder: destroying art.

And it made me feel physically ill. That’s how good this book is.

Auster writes with a precision that borders the lyrical, yet never really crosses over to the poetic. His prose is like a marathon runner, lean, stringy, taut. Because he reveals only what is necessary about his characters, they feel, paradoxically, more tangible than many other characters from fiction. He accomplishes in prose what I find I look for in theatre: a coolness in his characters, a reserve that may crack here and there, but that, in the end, never manages to break the dam down. As a reader, I am left with the feeling that I have spent considerable time with a number of fascinating people. And, as in “real” life, I am left with only glimpses of those people, with only shards of glass that partially reflect the whole mirror. Just as the knowledge of my co-workers, colleagues, acquaintances, friends, and lovers is always partial and limited, refracted through a narrow prism to reveal discrete colors that never, in the end, reveal everything, Auster’s characters are broken, disjointed, incomplete. Auster is not interested in attempting to fully reveal a character’s inner world and, because of this, he creates characters that are so damn intriguing you find yourself almost jumping into the fiction, eager to go with these creations and at the same time catching sight of yourself along the way.

Sometimes it is not a pretty sight.

The key to this novel, as I said before, is an act of artistic destruction. This destruction is so pure, so beyond understanding that you find yourself forgetting to breathe. As suspicion of what is to occur grows within you, you start to shiver. No, you say. No, he won’t do that to these people, not after all they’ve been through. He can’t.

He does.

There is a sense of the truly tragic in this book. The notion that, at any time, the character’s could have changed the outcome. Oedipus could have walked away from a fight on the crossroads, Agamemnon could have refused to sacrifice his daughter and come home with a concubine. The Book of Illusion has no illusions about could’ve should’ve would’ve and, moment by moment, the characters walk toward a destiny that is appallingly logical. Inhuman, yes, but completely, inevitably logical.

Read it, but don’t expect to read it lightly.

Currently Listening: Ulrich Schnauss – Knuddelmaus

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2 thoughts on “An Impressionist Review of Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions

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