After losing his wife and two young sons in an airplane crash, professor David Zimmer spends his waking hours in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity. Then, watching television one night, he sees a clip from a lost film by the silent comedian Hector Mann. Zimmer soon finds himself embarking on a journey around the world to study the works of this mysterious figure, who vanished from sight in 1929. Presumed dead for sixty years, Hector Mann was a comic genius who had flashed briefly across American movie screens, tantalizing the public with the promise of a brilliant future. Then, just as the silent era came to an end, he walked out of his house one January morning and was never heard from again. Zimmer's research leads him to write the first full-length study of Hector's films. Upon publication the following year, a letter turns up bearing a return address from New Mexico -- supposedly written by Hector's wife. "Hector has read your book and would like to meet you. Are you interested in paying us a visit?" Is the letter a hoax, or is Hector Mann still alive? Torn between doubt and belief, Zimmer hesitates, until one night a strange woman appears on his doorstep and makes the decision from him, changing his life forever.
Another one where I stand by my one-liner. Ye gods and little fishes, what a snore!
The Book Report: Protagonist loses family, isolates self from world to plumb solipsistic depths of grief and depression, discovers obsessive interest in an artist now of no great interest, sets out to rediscover and rehabilitate said artist, succeeds, and through a miracle of identification with the vanished artist's sufferings which mirror his own, protagonist resumes living in the real world again.
My Review: Does that sound familiar? It ought to...it's also the plot of the over-praised and underwhelming "New York Trilogy." Every writer, every artist, rides their hobbyhorses. Nothing new there. The question is, do you want to go along for the ride? In Auster's case, I do not.
But why not? Because I experienced a lot lot lot of grieving very early in life, when the AIDS epidemic was at its height. I lost every gay friend I'd made. I volunteered as a helper in the hospital...just showed up and did stuff, no training, no pay, and lots of nurses and porters would teach me what to do so they wouldn't risk getting the disease.
I held a lot of hands as men died. I saw a few mothers come to their sons' bedsides to excoriate them one last time for being queer and so embarrassing the church, the family, god. I had no idea what to say to their terrified faces as they died at 23...27...31.
But I fuckin' got up every morning and I went and DID SOMETHING.
I have ZERO tolerance for these a-holes who think their teensy little selves are so important that their pain is all that matters in the world. SHUT THE FUCK UP and get out of your own asshole and DO SOMETHING.
Okay, unsympathetic much? Yes. I lost the love of my life to AIDS in 1992. He died at 35. I do not want to hear crap from anyone about depression 'cause I been there too, and didn't treat it like it was All Important. I went to the doctor, I got help, I gave up some very unpleasant addictions, and I got on with life the whole time.
And I would give anything I have ever had to have my man back. Anything. I miss him fiercely even now, 20 years later.
So Mr. Auster can keep his wet-mouthed wet-eyed puling to his damn self.
The Book of Illusions contains quite an intricate premise and it is somewhat difficult, I feel, to succinctly define the core of its being. It begins with David Zimmer, a professor of comparative literature at Vermont, and a book he has written – the only one on the subject: The Silent World of Hector Mann. Told exclusively from David’s viewpoint, the story in The Book of Illusions - adroitly configured as another book by David - firstly introduces Hector Mann and his creative life, but quickly weaves the recent traumatic events of the professor's current subsistence into the mix: to clarify, not only, the reasons for writing this book about Hector, but the reasoning behind many of his past and present actions. For when David’s family – his wife and two young boys - are killed in a plane crash there follows many months of numbness, of self-absorption, with a total disregard for any normality in his life and a complete refusal to even contemplate the future; all this ironically possible due to the financial compensation from the accident. But a late-night unexpected TV viewing of a silent film, one of twelve made by Hector Mann in the 1920s, results in the first laugh escaping David’s lips in all this time and leads to his journey back, through these films, into a semblance of improved existence; studying and writing about Hector’s films ultimately providing a means of escaping his inconsolable grief. But, when David is contacted by Hector Mann’s wife, sometime after his book is published, and asked to meet the man most assumed had died sixty years ago, events become very complicated, allowing for a complex juxtaposition within a study of two tortured souls; and their differing paths to finding a redemption of sorts.
Reading more, at times, like non-fiction, what overwhelmed me significantly with this book was the ease of the exposition Paul Auster delivers in the creation of this tale. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a fictitious chronicle – at times I felt almost obliged to check if such an artist named Hector Mann actually existed! And the exquisite detailing offered about each film, the consequent clarity of the images the author constructs, possibly defies belief – the imagery flowing effortlessly across the pages until there resides a true cinematic notion rather than just some elaborate, albeit clever, textual concept. There are such vivid visual ideas portrayed within the lines of this prose. How I wanted to see these films too! For amongst this sophisticated celluloid metaphor is a convoluted true perspective: on life, and death, with the usual multitude of obscurities between them; and the methods these two men use to deal with it all. And more importantly, the illusions that manifest within actual and fabricated worlds.
This is truly a highly-wrought, stylish piece - a perfectly-written account defined by a well-crafted beginning and middle, and with an outstanding ending. On further investigation I was unsurprised to learn Paul Auster is a writer, a director and a one-time actor – underscoring the validity of the book. And adding to my delight is an understanding and a use of language, which allows the author’s eloquence and writing skill to shine intensely throughout the composition. A testament to his ability, this is an author whose other works I will actively seek, and decidedly enjoy. To my mind, just brilliant!
(Nov 12, 2008)
Drawing obvious parallels between the character of Hector Mann and the character of David Zimmer, Auster explores redefinition of the self. In his own circumstance, Zimmer, a professor at a college in Vermont, gets a phone call one day that his wife and two children have been killed in a plane crash. He is left alone, and the weight of his grief leaves him to want to do nothing. He contemplates suicide from time to time. Then one day of mindless television watching something happens...he laughs during a showing of a silent comedy...and becomes interested in the film's star, Hector Mann.
Hector Mann disappeared shortly after the release of his last film in 1928. Hearing that Mann's films had been donated anonymously to places around the world, he decides to go and see them all. His study of Mann eventually turns into a book which he calls The Silent World of Hector Mann. It is about Mann's films; nothing much is known about Mann himself. It is published, and David takes up a translation project to keep himself occupied. Then, a short 3 months later, he gets a weird letter asking him to come and visit Hector Mann. David thinks at first this is a crank, but David begins to wonder if Mann could really still be alive. One night David comes home to a stranger at his house who has plane tickets for him to fly to Albuquerque, then drive over to a ranch out in the middle of the New Mexico desert. It seems Mann is dying; there isn't much time left. On the way to the airport, in the plane and on the drive to Mann's ranch, his mysterious visitor, Alma, fills him in on Mann's missing years. Alma, as it turns out has written a book on Mann's life.
The novel is one of suspense, but more so it is a novel about loss & grief and how to redefine oneself in the midst of it all. And to what point does one go with this redefinition? If a person must redefine himself, then did he actually live his other life? If there's no one around from his other life, did he really live it? Much like the tree falling in the forest question.
Don't look for warm fuzzies from this novel, and although it is somewhat short, it is well worth reading very slowly. It is a multitude of layers of story within the story. Serious reading material...not a beach read.
Paul Auster is in top form in this book and the storytelling is engrossing. For nearly a whole chapter, Zimmer describes one of Hector Mann’s comedies in great detail—giving a scene by scene description of the cast, the action, the sets, the various facial expressions, right down to Mann’s skillful mustache twitches—which are apparently prominently featured in his movies. What I found fascinating was that while this exercise might have become tedious, on the contrary, he managed to make the description of this silent movie absolutely captivating and I quickly suspended disbelief and indeed started imagining that these movies truly do exist. This is only one of the many layers of illusions in this book, and this story lingers on well after the last lines have been read. This is my third Paul Auster novel so far, but something tells me there will be a few more.
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.
This book is incredibly difficult to wrap my head around and explain what I think. Auster certainly writes sentences well, sometimes bringing me up short with the perfection of a single thought. The descriptions of films are superb. But as for the actual story, I found myself second-guessing every last detail. Did this "really" happen, or is it all a figment of Zimmer's imagination? What are the illusions - the films, the story, life itself? It's just the sort of postmodern hard-to-follow plot one of my brothers loves and I can't stand, because I feel unsettled, questioning, and a little miffed that the author is holding something back from me (or making me fill in part of the blanks of the story - am I doing it right? Did he really mean for me to question everything?). The parallels between Zimmer and Mann, for example, made me wonder about the veracity of the story. I didn't particularly care for the story or the characters, and though I'm sure the ambiguity will make for a fantastic book discussion, this is not the type of book I tend to finish left to my own devices.
Here are my comments on the audio version
(November 20, 2006) :
I've been listening to the audio version of this book on my daily commute. I just finished it and I have to say that I loved it. Auster is an amazing reader (you never know what you're going to get when you have an author reading his or her own book) and is very believable as narrator David Zimmer.
David's own storyline is interesting in and of itself, but Auster augments it, intertwining it to splendid effect with that of Hector Mann, a silent film star who mysteriously disappeared in 1929, and (to a lesser extent) with that of 19th Century French writer François-René de Chateaubriand.
There was a moment when I thought that the ending would ruin the book for me, but at the last minute Auster ties things up marvelously producing an ending that is both realistic and satisfying for the reader.
There's a quote on the back of the novel from The Wall Street Journal suggesting that Auster is perfecting his own literary genre. If this is the case I would suggest the genre be called something like literary biography. The book reads almost like a biography, but the story is pure fiction.
The final thing about Auster's writing that confounds me is the way he seems to have separated himself so clearly from his work. While reading The Book of Illusions it's easy to forget that you're reading a story or that the is a piece of fiction. The Book of Illusions is nice and immersive, a book that makes it easy to forget the rest of the world.
The illusions revolve around a series of silent film actors and producers. Each principal believes he or she can have a life with another who wants nothing to do with it. Hector Mann, a main player in this drama, left filmmaking many years ago and directed that all his oevre be destroyed, reducing all of it to the level of an illusion. Did it ever really exist? He lived in a ranch in New Mexico, called the Blue Jewel until his (accidental? suspicious?) death. In one of the great and grand illusions of this book, he named his ranch after a brief but memorable episode in his life: he is out walking his dog on a damp evening, when he thinks he sees a jewel asparkle on the sidewalk. He inspects it closely only to find it a shiny spot of spittle.
Auster is a robust prose artist. His plot pulls us along but has the delicacy to reflect and reverberate against and within itself. This story will engage you, and will make you wonder at Auster's skill.
Enjoyed every single word of it, while taking neverending night showers... A vacation to remember.
David is an elegantly realized character with a dynamic arc throughout. I found his story, and that of Mann, rather fascinating. However, there were a few things that didn't work for me. First of all, there are no quotation marks around any of the dialogue. This becomes very confusing, particularly when a character's thought or a small sentence about the action is inserted between lines of dialogue and it is not readily apparent who is speaking. Second, David describes several of Hector's films all the way through. While this is generally pretty well done, with a lot of detail, it is difficult to picture all of these scenes and becomes kind of a slog. Third, I felt as though I had invested quite a lot into both David and Hector, and was very disappointed by the ending. I won't spoil it for you, but if you're a fan of "they all lived happily ever after" you will definitely not be pleased.
"Everyone thought he was dead." is the opening sentence of this book and refers to Hector Mann, a 1920's silent film actor who had mysteriously disappeared in 1929. Nearly sixty years later Professor David Zimmer life unravels when his wife and two young sons plummet seven miles to their deaths in a plane crash. Zimmer disappears into zombie-like world mired in alcoholic grief and self-pity. Six months later whilst channel surfing in the early hours of the morning Zimmer stumbles across a screening of a Hector Mann movie. He finds himself laughing and released from his acute pain for the first time since his family's deaths and decides to seek out Mann's other works. In doing so he finds himself drawn into a shadowy nether world of death, lies and unexpected love, tracking down one man so that he might lose himself.
Mann was a talented actor in a white suit and an expressive moustache but just as his career seemed to be taking off suddenly vanished. Zimmer spends hours alone in tiny viewing theatres studying all of Mann's films learning a little about the man's public life along the way. When Zimmer has a book published about the films he mysteriously receives an invitation to meet the actor himself. Zimmer is sceptical and intrigued in the same measure.
Zimmer discovers that Mann is not dead after all and with the help of the actor's sort of adopted daughter finds himself in the New Mexico desert only to arrive hours before the reclusive old man's death. Along the way he learns a little of what actor has been doing since his disappearance as well as unexpected love.
This then is a Gothic detective story where the dead have all the best lines, "when our backs are right up against the wall. You have to die first to know how to live." There is a crime, there is love, loss and guilt, along with many of the usual Gothic elements ( murderer, prostitute, deceived wench, hidden body and a secret book). Both men hit rock bottom and been raised up again; both feel guilt and the need to do penance.
On a couple of occasions the prose felt a little forced but generally I found this a powerfully written tale. I loved the depiction of Mann's films, I could almost view them in my mind's eye but I felt the image of Zimmer playing with his sons' Lego and burying his face in his wife's clothes that still smell of her perfume was particularly powerful and poignant. Each man's life has echoes in the other's and sometimes I wondered whether the author had overdone this element but all the same I found myself unwilling to put the book down, always wanting to read the next chapter. A very enjoyable read.
The read itself is enjoyable: I liked Hector's adventures, the descriptions of the desert, the makeshift studio and the movies, but I found they were an excuse for a story rather than a story in itself. For me, Hector's choices and life would have had much more impact recounted through him, rather than through two characters, who although well delineated, stayed rather mysterious.