Chasing a fleeting film image
In Paul Auster's new novel, The Book of Illusions, the figure at the center of the story a promising slapstick comedian named Hector Mann literally disappeared without trace in 1929. But when a fragmentary film clip of the white-suited Mann appears on a TV documentary, it reanimates depressed professor David Zimmer, who recently lost his wife and two sons in a plane accident.
From the depths of his "alcoholic grief and self-pity," Zimmer laughs at Mann's nuanced physical comedy. He becomes fascinated with the actor's slapstick technique and travels to six museums where Mann's two-reel movies mysteriously reappeared several years back. After Zimmer's scholarly appreciation of the comedian's work is published, he receives a note from Mann's wife inviting him to meet the actor in New Mexico. Dubious, the still-depressed Zimmer stays to himself, moves to a mountain in Vermont and tellingly begins a translation of Chateaubriand's Memoirs of a Dead Man. It is only late one rainy night that a mysterious woman appears at his door with a gun and the promise of a sit-down-and-listen tale. Zimmer agrees to make the long trip into the past, to meet a man who cannot be.
Auster's extraordinarily well-written and smartly plotted 10th novel is his third book with a filmic theme, and follows his latest novel, the best-selling Timbuktu. The reader is skillfully driven forward by a Depression-era tale of Mann's past, while Zimmer races against time to meet the critically ill former actor. Given Zimmer's mental state and the illusory nature of reality in Hollywood, readers can never be quite sure whether they're standing on firm ground. The Book of Illusions takes readers into a memorable film-like setting of vivid images and examines our ever-needful desire to read ourselves into the moving images on a blank white screen. Richard Carter is a writer in North Texas who cherishes the films and writings of the silent screen actress Louise Brooks.