"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Book of Illusions

TITLE: The Book of Illusions
AUTHOR: Paul Auster

Similar to The Dogs of Babel, this one deals with loss. As in Dogs, here, too, a man has to cope with the loss of his wife, and in this case, his two sons, dead in a plane crash. And here, too, David, the protagonist, is a professor. But where Dogs dealt with the loss directly, recalling how Paul and his wife met and fell in love, The Book of Illusions has something far more complex in mind. In his grief, David spent time watching old movies and became obsessed with Hector Mann, a silent film comedian who managed to break through his defenses and make him laugh. Needing something to occupy his mind, and wealthy thanks to a financial settlement from the loss of his family, he sets out to see every one of the too few films made by Mann who had a brief, but brilliant career before disappearing 60 years ago, in 1929. His research leads him to write a book about Mann, and sometime after it's published, he receives a letter from a woman inviting him to New Mexico to meet Hector who has long been presumed dead.

Much of the book is spent analyzing Mann's films and in doing so, Auster creates a reality that never existed. Hector Mann comes alive, and his films feel real as they're described scene by scene and sometimes, frame by frame. Skeptical, David has no interest in accepting the offer to meet Hector, but he's soon convinced by Alma, a woman sent by Hector to fetch him. Through her, he learns what happened to Hector and the reason for his disappearance. He learns what Hector has been doing for the past 60 years. The illusions of the book come in many forms, in Hector's life before and after 1929, in Alma, in David, himself, as he sifts through realities both tangible and on film.

The book works on many levels. As a straightforward story, it has a nice element of suspense. There is the historical context and the feel of a non-fiction work about the silent film era. There is the question of what is more real, the lives people live in the physical world or the ones they create in film and books. And are those created works real if no one gets to see them? Do they need to be shared? Or is it enough for them to exist for a time? Can art exist for itself or does it need an audience? Does the artist own his or her art or, once witnessed, does it belong to the world at large? Who has the right to decide what to do with it? And underneath it all, as with The Dogs of Babel, is the question of what it can take to heal a wounded heart.

I've believed for a long time that stories, once released into the world, belong as much to the audience as the creator. Each reader or viewer interprets the work, absorbs it, makes it his or her own. And yet, the original remains with the creator. It's as if many versions now exist, the original in the mind of the creator, and all the permutations, editions, versions in the minds of everyone who has seen, heard, or read the work. Perhaps, all of them are illusions.