Teaching Paul Auster's 'The Book of Illusions'
Today, Paul Auster turns 73.
He’s a writer that will be familiar to most Higher Education students of American Literature. If you’ve been at University in the last 25 years, the odds are that you have encountered his New York Trilogy. Though Auster himself would, years after the fact, say that he didn’t know if the trilogy was even very good, it’s postmodern playing with the conventions of the detective novel has seen it become something of a fixture on courses about postmodernism, as well as American literature more generally.
But Auster has written many more novels and novellas, and some of the most productive teaching experiences I have had have involved some of his other work. Today, I am thinking mainly about the time spent teaching his 2002 novel, The Book of Illusions. This is one of the few novels I’ve taught that has garnered near-universally positive reactions from students, which, will not being an end in itself, certainly makes it an interesting case.
The novel tells the story of David Zimmer, a professor of comparative literature who appears in Auster’s 1989 novel Moon Palace. It is set in the late 1980s, roughly comparable with the time he was publishing Moon Palace for the first time. In the novel, Zimmer loses his wife and both of his children in a plane crash. At a time when he thinks life has no meaning and is considering ended it all, he sees a clip of a silent-film that draws him in and, against all odds, inspires mirth. Intrigued, he learns that the film's director, Hector Mann, is at the centre of a mystery that dates back to the 1920s, relating to his sudden and unexplained disappearance. Zimmer watches all of Mann’s films and writes a book about the director, drawing him closer into the mystery.
As with much of Auster’s most famous work, the book revels in the conventions of Noir, playing up the enigmatic qualities of the story to its upmost. This is a story that runs through so many of the clichés of the genre – desperation, attractive mysterious women, firearms and hard liquor – but despite this, or perhaps because of this, students seem to be drawn into what can be a slower, more thoughtful novel, one that still plays with formal expectations by describing fictional silent movies in the novel film and raises some profound questions about the nature – and the problems – of art.
Student responses naturally differ – there is no such thing as the univocal classroom unless the voice belongs to the teacher – but The Book of Illusions stands as one of those texts that students have generally been willing to engage with, and one that marries up intrigue and depth to useful effect.