Unsettling Chapters is a month-long celebration of dark fiction brought to you by Ensuing Chapters book blog and Transgress digital magazine. Every day through Halloween, we’ll feature reviews, discussions and recommendations of some of the most frightening books ever printed. Check back or subscribe to our feed for your daily dose of darkness.
One of my all-time favorite records is Shotgun Messiah’s Violent New Breed, a dystopic industrial-metal assault that is as much manifesto as music. What you hear within its tracks is the sound of your inner demons clawing their way out through your throat.
That’s also how I would describe the writing of Paul Auster, best known for existentialist works such as The Invention of Solitude, Travels in the Scriptorium and The New York Trilogy. These grim tomes remind us that it is not the dark we are afraid of, but rather being left alone inside our own heads, which run riot in the small hours of night.
Which brings us to 2008’s Man in the Dark.
In this short novel, aging writer August Brill struggles with insomnia and attempts to lull himself to sleep by creating a story about a man named Owen Brick. It’s a dystopian tale of senseless war and a fractured America, which provides an alternate history to 9/11. The narrative of Man in the Dark shifts between Brill’s nocturnal counterfactuals and the despair of his waking existence. Recently widowed, he shares a house with his daughter and granddaughter (also recently widowed, in a manner of speaking).
The despair deepens as the source of the familial insomnia is revealed.
Despite being written in the first-person, Man in the Dark has the texture of a third-person narrative. Auster balances the two narratives (the waking and the counterfactual) along with interactions with other family members that expand plot points and keep us engaged in the story without focusing on the singular event driving this piece.
And of course, the fictional narrative within the narrative allows Brill to reveal insights into his life without the bias or sentimentality of confession. He uses Owen Brick as a stand-in for his own life.
When the climax comes, it feels inevitable. Auster achieves this result not with a clever twist (although there is an affecting shock at the end) but through the groundwork he lays throughout the novel. He transforms a simple first-person narrative into something more complex and complete, much as a reader would expect from a multi-character, third-person POV.
Most important for our purposes, Auster has penned a haunting work that reminds us that there is only one thing to fear in the dark—our own mind.
I recommend that you devour this book with Violent New Breed playing in the background.
And let those inner demons do their worst.