Tenth grade was a bad year for me. My life had been humming along quite nicely up to that point, and then the universe suddenly decided to see what would happen if it didn’t. I won’t go into details, but basically, so many awful things happened in such quick succession that it doesn’t seem quite real even to me.
However, as if to prove the adage about doors closing and opening, that was also the year I was really first exposed to culture. I made friends that year with a hipster in twelfth grade, and she introduced me to all sorts of (yes, I know, douchey, elitist, pretentious) indie music, movies, and literature. But it was good stuff, and what I was exposed to that year continues to define my tastes today.
Tenth grade was the year I was first read Paul Auster, and I don’t think I will ever be quite able to separate his work from that period in my life. It was, to put it bluntly, a very dark time, and I latched on to the facets of the work that spoke to that morbidity in me. In short, I inevitably experience it differently than I would if I first read it, say, last week.
As luck would have it, I did in fact reread The Book of Illusions last week, and I can say with confidence that it is objectively one hell of a novel. It follows the story of David Zimmer, who, after the death of his wife and children, finds a kind of salvation in writing a novel about a silent film actor. The actor is thought to be long dead, which amplifies Zimmer’s shock when he is contacted by the actor and his family. As Zimmer is drawn into the their strange, isolated world, the novel ruminates on the nature of art, love, and loyalty.
Paul Auster is a genius storyteller, spinning complex, inventive plots, but his true strength lies in his understanding of people and their relationships. At the heart of all of his stories lie his rich, intense individuals with honest motivations and values. He gets people, gets their quirks and foibles and flaws and virtues. If his plots, while fascinatingly engrossing, tend to veer off the path of realistic, his characters are more real than many of the people you or I actually know.
Paul Auster’s novels take place in a sort of heightened reality, a place where the very fabric of the air is filled with emotion. Upon looking back at them, I get the sense that they are probably not as realistic as first impression would imply, but his genius is that he gets his reader to believe that these stories are one of the billions happening every day. His novels are windows in the best sense of the term, allowing the reader to peer into a slice of the life of the interesting, engrossing people who populate the books.
Like I said, I tend to be drawn to the morbid aspect of a work (even when it’s not technically supposed to be morbid, like when the film NY, I Love You, which I’m fairly sure is supposed to be optimistic, made me cry) and so the tragedy in The Book of Illusions spoke to me. But I don’t just mean the overt tragedy of the story, which I won’t spoil here; I mean the tragedy of the novel itself. To me, a novel is better the more it haunts me – not in the sense that it gives me nightmares, but rather the sense that it captures my imagination. Going back to Auster’s skill depicting people, the characters remained with me even after the last page.
And that, to me, is what makes the novel sad. Even if the characters continue living in the story after the end of the novel, by finishing the last page, they are effectively dead to the reader, in that their story is finished. I know that may sound obvious, but think about it – a character at the end of a book (or, really, any story) has stopped having new experiences, having new conversations, meeting new people, just as surely as a real person who has passed away has. The mark of a good story, then, is whether we care, whether we, in a sense, mourn. And it is that feeling – that diluted mourning, so to speak – that a good novel leaves me with.
Part of the reason tenth grade was so terrible was that a number of my close relatives passed away. I am not in any way attempting to equate that experience with the experience of finishing a novel, but there is some comparison to be made, if only that the latter aids in dealing with the former. Perhaps mourning is not the best word to describe finishing The Book of Illusions. It is more of a shadow in the back of the mind, an intensity that carries over into the mundanity of everyday. It is as though the novel is too expansive to be contained within its covers.
The Book of Illusions will very likely not haunt everyone as it haunts me, but it is still a fabulous novel, engrossing and intelligent. While not a thriller, it is what I like to think of as an intellectual page turner, capturing the reader without them quite realizing it. Auster’s attention to detail is evident, as is his meandering and often surprising imagination. Will it change your life? Maybe not. But it certainly changed mine.