"The Book of Illusions" by Paul Auster

A bereaved man becomes obsessed with the riddle of a great silent film star's disappearance.

Published September 5, 2002 4:05PM (EDT)

The strange magic of Paul Auster's writing lies in the easy way he weaves inconsolable sadness and waste into an effervescent picaresque. His latest novel, "The Book of Illusions," is a mystery filled with lives brutally disjointed by the violent deaths of loved ones and artistic oeuvres left unseen and unappreciated. Though it begins and ends with grief, it's more luminous than lugubrious.

The book's epigraph, from the 19th century French memoirist Chateaubriand, is unusually apt. "Man has not one and the same life. He has many lives, placed end to end, and that is the cause of his misery." Auster's characters endure more than mere vicissitudes -- fate catapults them from one existence into another, obliterating their former selves. One character is a European shtetl Jew, then becomes an Argentine Hollywood playboy, then a dock worker, then a masked stud in degrading sex shows; with each identity comes a new name. Another is a family man turned into an embittered recluse translating Chateaubriand's autobiography; he finds a new life and loses it almost as quickly.

Playing with the old question about the sounds trees make falling in forests, the book seems to ask whether these existences evanesce along with the memory of them. Does an unseen movie or an unread biography tell a story? Continuing with a theme from his bestselling 1999 novel "Timbuktu," in which a loquacious homeless writer tries to save both his dog's life and his own history before he dies, Auster suggests in "The Book of Illusions" that when a work is destroyed, its maker seems to be erased as well.

The book begins with the end of narrator David Zimmer's world, destroyed the day his wife and two young sons are killed in a plane crash. Unable to be around other people, he loses himself in a fog of alcohol and television, which is where he discovers Hector Mann, a forgotten silent film comedian who makes him chuckle for the first time since he lost his family.

Needing an obsession to lose himself in, Zimmer seizes on Mann, who made 11 short movies before vanishing one day in 1929. The mystery of his disappearance had caused a brief sizzle in Hollywood, but when no clues were discovered, Mann was eventually forgotten and most of his work lost. Then, in 1981, prints started arriving at the world's major film archives. Zimmer makes a pilgrimage around Europe and America, viewing the movies over and over again, finally writing a book called "The Silent World of Hector Mann."

The book comes out, he forgets all about it and resumes his embittered hermit's life. Then he gets a letter from a woman claiming to be Mann's wife saying that the actor is alive, in New Mexico and eager to meet him. Shortly after, he's visited by Alma, a gun-toting woman who claims to be writing Mann's biography and demands that Zimmer accompany her to the old actor's desert retreat.

From there, the book becomes a whirl of rich, adventurous history and an intricate intellectual riddle as Zimmer delves into the secret that damned Mann and spurred the comedian toward self-obliterating penance. Wild and suspenseful, Mann's story works in wonderful counterpoint to Zimmer's numbed mourning, allowing Auster to revel in the rowdy, garish American underworld he painted so exuberantly in his 1994 showbiz rise-and-fall fairy-tale novel "Mr. Vertigo," which this new book's most colorful moments recall. His wonderful pacing makes "The Book of Illusions" both meditative and thrilling, and while he strikes a single false note in the last few pages by making Zimmer's salvation a bit too pat, such a tiny flaw hardly mars this otherwise enchanting puzzle of a book.

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By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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