Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Sixty-odd pages into Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

with 3 comments

[Most of my blogging lately has been really old, taken from my paper notebooks, where “blog entries” co-exist with novel notes, research notes, private journal entries, business ideas, and other odds and ends. My paper notebooks are a catch-all, and it’s rather sad (but predictible) that I’ve been “blogging” even while avoiding the internet as much as possible. Probably a sign that I’m addicted. 🙂

Anyhow, this is an entry dated 31 January 2006:]


I must make this movie!

As regular readers know, I avoid contemporary Literary Writers like I avoid syphilitic lepers. And Paul Auster is Literary with a capital, bolded, underlined, italicized L followed by an unadorned period (exclamation points are so vulgar you know). He wrote an entire book — no doubt a plotless-but-penetrating, insightful, and sensitive exploration of The Human Condition — from the point of view of a dog, for cripes’ sake. (Timbuktu, if you think you can stomach it.)

But the cover design for The Book of Illusions was interesting — image of an eye from worn, faded, scratched black and white film — and the back of the book That’s how much I loathe Lit’rary Writers today — I actually read the damnable back-cover copy! Before cracking the book open, even! promised at least half an intriguing story. It is, shades of Forgotten Silver though much lower-key, about the rediscovery of a minor but talented silent film comedian — a man who vanished in 1929.

The narrator is the man who writes the first book about this lost light. He’s a college professor whose wife and two sons were killed in an air crash (ah, modern angst muscles its way into the story!). In his desolation, he sees a TV documentary on silent film comedians, and a minute or two from one of Hector Mann’s films makes him laugh. Based on that, he decides to learn a little about Mann. Turns out that he had a one-year career, making 12 two-reel comedies (a reel of film being ten minutes; two-reelers were a standard part of theater programming through the 1940s at least) in 1927-28, then disappeared entirely. His films were thought to have been lost until 1981-83 when, one at a time, a copy of each was mailed to one of a half-dozen film archives in the US, Britain, and France. Mailed anonymously.

The narrator decides to see them all, ends up writing a book about them, The Silent World of Hector Mann, then…

He gets a postcard asking if he wants to meet Hector Mann.

Being Literary, Auster tells the tale all out of order, but never confusingly. Thus far, the personal tragedy has been handled well and believably and not been forced into being a Metaphor for Modern Life or whatever. Mann’s films and career are presented in a very believable manner, except in a few small details As described, Mr. Nobody is supposed to be the last and lowest-budgeted film, but contains at least two complex optical effects that would have been expensive. They weren’t impossible, but would have required an optical printer and time to achieve, which doesn’t jibe with the circumstances of production that are implied..

And Auster also caputres, perhaps unsurprisingly, the absurd overreaching prose of which most film scholars are guilty, even though the narrator is a professor of Litrachoor. (Okay, no big difference there, really.)

So, sixty-six pages or so into a three hundred page book, I’m more or less hooked, but I have forebodings.

The title, for instance, suggests that things may end up in the territory of Pynchonesque absurdity (up to now, everything is well-grounded in reality).

The point where I have paused now, too, looks as if there will be a sideline distraction — the narrator has just been hired to translate Chateaubriand’s autobiography. (Oh boy, depressing French philosophizing!)

But so far, I’ve been drawn in, not cast out, so I think I shall push on.

And, like I said, I want to make the movie, which already must differ significantly from the book, since the book is (surprise!) largely interior to the narrator’s mind.

ADDENDUM: I’m up to page 107 and thus far all worries have proven unfounded. I am hooked. Auster is playing a game of hide-the-cookie on a par with Koontz in top form. If it turns out to be a stupid, stale hydrox of a post-modernist cookie, I will never forgive you, Auster.

ON FINISHING (2 February 2006): Well, that was bleak, wasn’t it? But then, if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be Litrachure, would it? AT least Auster didn’t allow the book to fizzle out or veer into preposterousness. And he left at least a tiny hope at the end.

A few things bugged me, some of them intentionally:

  • “The Hector Manniacs” is not right, more befitting a Three Stooges sensibility than the more sophisticated comedy Mann is presented as creating. Properly, the society ought to have taken its name from one of his films, a la the Damfinos or Sons of the Desert.
  • The Inner Life of Martin Frost is way too Maya Derren/Luis Bunuel. Why should Hector’s self-education bring him to make self-conscious, pretentious crap that corresponds exactly to NPR’s working definition of “challenging”, “serious”, and “artistic”? Mostly because Auster is an NPR groupie, methinks. Serious failure of imagination here.

Written by [IMH]

28 March 2006 at 8:37 pm

Posted in Literature

3 Responses

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  1. How did you come by your revulsion of contemporary lit or “quality lit” as it is sometimes called?

    I’m interested because like you I associate it – negatively – with the NPR wavelength (I think it’s the same wavelength for movies and painting and music…). Unlike you , I don’t enjoy the genre writers, but like you I am fascinated by the seasonal drops of breathy “literary” novels that NPR promotes as powerful, moving, searing indctments, shattering (who wants to be shattered or seared?)…you know what I mean –

    feel free to email me and thanks for all your thoughts here -DA


    5 June 2006 at 8:33 am

  2. This is an old, old bugaboo of mine (since the first month of this blog, and before). I’ll give you a full response soon.


    5 June 2006 at 12:33 pm

  3. This is an old, old bugaboo of mine (since the first month of this blog, and before). I’ll give you a full response soon.


    5 June 2006 at 12:33 pm

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