"The Book of Illusions" by Paul Auster is typically stylish, but somehow failed to sustain my interest. Probably there are all kinds of allegorical and/or self-referential motifs to be pondered and mulled over, if only I could be bothered. Here's the Guardian review by Anthony Quinn - he seems to agree.
"The title of Paul Auster's new book makes it sound less like a novel than a compendium of magic tricks -which, in a way, is what a novel amounts to. The Book of Illusions bristles with switched identities, vanishing acts, sudden feints and flourishes which the author plays off against one another in an elegant though often sombre narrative. It is the kind of dexterity that has been delighting Auster's readership since his acclaimed 1987 debut The New York Trilogy, and this oddly enfolded book is one of its most accomplished demonstrations. It is a story about a "dead" man who comes to life, and a living man who wishes he were dead.
David Zimmer, a literature professor in Vermont, has been traumatised by the loss of his wife and two children in a plane crash. Stewing in alcohol and daydreaming of suicide, he has let his life run away from him until one night, watching TV, he happens upon a clip of a forgotten comedian of the silent era named Hector Mann. The cleverness of his slapstick makes Zimmer laugh and in doing so reminds him that he hasn't hit rock bottom; he proceeds to trawl the archives for the 12 two-reel comedies Mann made in the late 1920s before he walked out of his house one morning in January 1929 and vanished from sight.
Zimmer becomes absorbed in the screen persona of Hector Mann, resplendent in his trademark white suit and expressively twirly moustache, a nimble prankster who dazzles "with his backpedals and dodges, his sudden torques and lunging pavanes, his double-takes and hop-steps and rhumba swivels". He writes a book about Hector's work, and some months after its publication receives a startling letter from New Mexico; it is apparently written by Hector's wife, Frieda, who says that Hector has read his book and would like to meet him. Is this a hoax? Could Hector Mann, missing, presumed dead for over 50 years, still be alive?
Auster keeps us guessing, and in the meantime dispenses a précis of Hector's penultimate film, Mr Nobody, a tragicomic tale of a man who is tricked by a perfidious colleague into drinking a potion that makes him disappear - makes him, to all intents and purposes, dead. The film's themes not only prefigure its star's actual disappearance but chime with Zimmer's own feeling that he too is a nonentity, "a dead man".
At this point the novel seems to have reached an impasse. Raymond Chandler famously wrote that, when in doubt, a writer should "have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand". Auster tweaks the advice ever so slightly: he has a woman come through the door with a gun in her hand.
It's not an entirely convincing appearance, in truth, but it does get the plot back on track. The woman, Alma, turns out to be the daughter of Hector's leading lady, and has been compiling a biography of him for the last six years. Now she wants to take Zimmer to the New Mexico ranch where Hector, unbeknown to the world, has been making his own movies. And they have to be quick about it too, because Hector is close to death, and the terms of his will stipulate that the movies are to be immediately destroyed.
As Alma recounts Hector's "missing years" to Zimmer during their cross-country trip, the book comes to resemble one of those literary quest stories which have enjoyed such a vogue. In the way it raises questions about art and its putative ownership one may be reminded of AS Byatt's Possession, with Hector Mann's unseen movies an equivalent to the lost correspondence and nuttily inspired fairy poems of the Victorian lovers.
Auster sounds the life-art resonances in a tricksier post-modern key; echoes, parallels and doublings keep nudging the reader along. The one Hector Mann film Zimmer manages to see is called The Inner Life of Martin Frost, which unfolds the tale of a writer and a philosophy student whose chance relationship enigmatically spirals towards a vanishing point - a destination that the novel itself appears to be heading towards. Figuratively and physically, most things go up in smoke.
Auster's echo-ridden style may encourage you to look for meanings that aren't there. On considering the names of the two central characters (Zimmer-Mann) I spent some time trying, in vain, to spot buried references to Bob Dylan. The Book of Illusions is a highly artful performance, which is both to praise it and to express a small misgiving as to its impact. While its sleights of hand are admirable, it is not quite so absorbing as to be difficult to put down. Like most legerdemain, it is diverting and clever and something to wonder at, but you take your leave of it with no feelings of regret."