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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2002
After reading a few of the other reviews, I feel somewhat inadequate to render my opinion. I know I won't come close to delving into the deeper meanings and darker shades of Paul Auster's book -- which is odd for me because I usually analyze things to death. But I'd like to describe what the book -- at face value -- meant to me.
To start with, with The Book of Illusions I turned off my mind and just enjoyed what I can only describe as a novel with more detail, believability, and fictional reality than I have ever read.
"Fictional reality" is probably a good term for it, too. Fictional reality is the currency with which this exceptional book conducts its business -- and in a manner so believable I began to question if this was fiction at all. (Shades of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil!)
Did Hector Mann ever really exist? No, he didn't. But you wouldn't know that by reading Paul Auster's book. Auster paints such a vivid picture of the silent-era movie star and his life that I often wondered to myself if the entire book was based partly on fact, and merely cleverly veiled. (Just to make sure, I checked the Internet Movie Database under the name "Hector Mann." No precise listing came up under any cateogry.)
I have never seen such rich detail about a fictional person's life! It's astounding to me that the films the book's main character, David Zimmer, describes in painstaking detail never really existed. Dialog, facial expressions, plots, the names of other actors, the names of directors and producers, and the descriptions of the era in which the films were released (the late '20s) are all there in black and white. (No pun intended.)
Yet the films were really only "seen" by one person -- author Paul Auster!
What that tells me is Paul Auster has an imagination to rival any sci-fi/fantasy author one could name. He saw in his mind movies that didn't exist, and then had the talent to capture what he saw on paper for us to read.
Other reviewers have already detailed the plot. So I won't go into that. I'll just say it's a fairly simple one, really. Nothing earthshattering there. No new ground broken. But Auster takes what could have been the latest Nicholas Sparks novel (and I have nothing against Nicholas Sparks; The Notebook moved me deeply...even changed my life) and infuses it with uncommon three dimensionality.
I couldn't put this book down. And I'm not likely to ever forget it. If you like intelligent, compelling novels that (a) don't require a lot of thought to enjoy, or -- paradoxically -- (b) require a lot of though to enjoy, The Book of Illusions will fill the bill nicely.
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53 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2002
So let's face it: Paul Auster's books are usually either very good or very bad, and readers either get him or they don't. The Book of Illusions is a winner, one of his darkest novels yet and very typical of his style. It reminded me most of Leviathan (which still I consider his best), and despite its pervasive darkness, it never approaches the oppressive agony of the almost unreadable In the Country of Last Things.
As he often does, Auster returns in this story to several motifs common to much of his fiction. Many key Auster characters are clearly intended as variations of himself -- sometimes he will give them his name -- and The Book of Illusions introduces another aspect of the author in its narrator, "David Zimmer." Like the narrator of Leviathan, Zimmer is a wordsmith intellectual whose fascination with a highly creative individual with a suspect past and a mysterious disappearance triggers the unraveling of the story. To preserve his fragile sanity, Zimmer scrutinizes the work and life of Hector Mann, a 1920s filmmaker whose twelve silent comedies strike Zimmer as perfectly crafted examples of the form. Meanwhile, he undertakes the monumental project of translating from French to English an epic 18th century autobiography 2,000 pages long (Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand's Memoires d'Outre-tombe). Zimmer sees his own hopelessness mirrored in the autobiographer's conception of his task as issuing dispatches as a dead man from beyond the tomb.
The translation, in its enormity and relentlessness, manifests other familiar Auster themes. I thought back to The Music of Chance, where the prisoners Nashe and Pozzi are charged with carefully constructing a two-thousand-foot wall from the stones of a disassembled castle. The drudgery of the labor was precisely what enabled Nashe to approach the task with his characteristic stoicism and see in it the prospect of liberation from the wheels of fate. Zimmer appears to approach his translation in the same way. Its schematic similarity to the wall-building crystallizes various questions on the nature of language, including some Auster ruminated on most thoroughly in City of Glass, his novella about the Tower of Babel. Is a translation like the wall -- a new creation built from the components of a master work -- or does it aim to reconstruct the original as closely as possible within the constraints imposed by the differences in their elemental parts?
I think most readers will find their understanding of past Auster novels enriched by this book. Others might find his recycling of past motifs, especially the potency of random chance, tiresome. But I think everyone will be struck by its most haunting moments and will remain in suspense until the story's climactic end. Whether Chateaubriand, Mann, or neither can shepherd Zimmer out of his nihilism and despair is the question that will keep readers interested as the plot bounces back and forth into present and past.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2002
All of Auster's familiar themes of fate, the inscrutability of coincidence, the shortcomings of language, and the duplicity of man are on full display in his latest novel. They are sewn together expertly into an engaging and compelling narrative that is as elaborate and intriguing as anything he has ever written. There is an expert hand at work here and it is hard not to admire the deft skill with which disparate themes, voices and plotlines are elegantly woven together. Still, Auster's latest work somehow feels like a rough draft of sorts and his words do not have anywhere near the grace and cohesiveness of some of his earlier work such as 'City of Glass' and 'Moon Palace.' As the New York Times Book Review states, 'It feels messy without being quite human.' In the end, however, 'The Book of Illusions' is still well worth the read and the superbly taut last pages helps one to overlook any misgivings one might have about the flaws in the novel.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Auster is an extraordinary writer -- his prose spare and elegant, his focus the shifting shadows between reality and illusion. Never was a book more appropriately titled.
The protagonist, academic David Zimmer, has suffered the nearly unimaginable, but quite credible tragedy of losing his family in an air crash. His response is to drink, to shut himself away, and, when briefly re-introduced to his former life, to be appallingly obnoxious.
His chosen therapy is to write a book about a forgotten (and as it turns out, disappeared) silent film star. The publication of this study produces the remarkable news that his subject is still alive. The story of his subject Hector's life post-Hollywood mirrors the escape Zimmer himself is trying to make from the awful reality of his own tragedy. The parallels between Zimmer as author and Hector as subject are striking.
The resolution of this marvellous novel is both sad and shocking, and yet, as with all Auster's work, there is a note of hope at the end, coupled with the sense that what is real, and what is not, is divided by the thinnest possible line.
If this book were judged only on its evocation of the end of the silent movie period, it would be a complete success. Containing, as it does, many layers of complexity built around what we know to be real, imagine to be real, and imagine to be imagined, seen against the backdrop of unforgettable characters whose own reality is compelling, this is an extraodinary novel by a writer at the height of his powers. Read it more than once -- it will repay you many times over.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
I cant account for the huge appeal of Paul Auster except that he's an intelligent writer without being `too' intelligent, that you can read him for entertainment without feeling like a total stooge, like you would, say, reading John Grisham or Dan Brown. Auster's novels are challenging, but they don't challenge much. They are adult fables reinforcing conventional values, viewpoints, and moral stereotypes written with clarity and craft but ultimately driven by TV-drama conflicts and tear-jerking sentimentality. You can be certain that in picking up a Paul Auster novel you'll never stray too far from the middle of the road.

That said, *The Book of Illusions* is familiar territory even so far as Auster goes. A man suffering a major loss questions his identity and the meaning of his life, begins writing a book, and finds himself involved in a mystery that unfolds in a series of stories within stories. This is Paul Auster's tried-and-true novel-writing formula, but after reading a couple of his books, it begins to feel a little stale. The weakness of this narrative device eventually becomes obvious ((and tedious))--large parts of his novels end up being summarized episodes from the past that read more like plot outlines than full-fledged dramatic fiction. In *The Book of Illusions* it is largely the life story of the vanished filmmaker Hector Mann that is told in this manner.

It's as if Auster wrote a lot of background material for characters in a novel and then made that background material part of the actual novel. It also begins to seem increasingly arbitrary what stories get told and who gets to tell them--a character comes onto the scene and then rambles on for seventy-five pages of back story. Meanwhile the main character--the guy who's wife and children were killed in a plane crash, whose been struggling with depression and suicidal drives--is left somewhere back on page thirty-five where he first started listening to all this. A lot of the episodes in these interminable stories don't really go anywhere--or simply amplify a point already sufficiently made. By piling up the coincidences and correlations, parallels between the stories of the various characters, Auster evokes his much-heralded "magic," but like a lot of magic, it ends up being dependent more on a cheap trick once you catch on. You realize that a lot of these `stories within the story' could just as easily have been left out--or, worse, multiplied to infinity. *The Book of Illusions* is, therefore, much longer than it really needed to be, but also much shorter than it theoretically could have been. And the fact that either way it makes no difference to the central plot is a problem.

In the end, *The Book of Illusions* isn't a bad novel; it just isn't a particularly good one. It won't shake up your world, but it won't put you to sleep either. Like all fables, it will pretty much repeat everything you already know, all the comfortable old bromides and moral certitudes that we imbibed as children and need to keep having confirmed to keep believing. Perhaps, its for this very reason more than any other that Auster continues to be so popular. He reconfigures the obvious in new ways. Nothing wrong with that--its one of the better-paying and more appreciated functions of art.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 25, 2005
This is proving to be a very difficult book to describe. The basic plot elements are relatively simple, but trying to convey the tone...the meaning...that's tough.

The plot: our narrator, David Zimmer, is remember a time some dozen or so years ago when he was absolutely wracked with grief over the death of his wife and 2 children in a plane crash...a plane he was supposed to be on as well. He's a writer (mostly of criticism or translations) and a college professor in a smallish northeastern town, so this means he's got enough money to quit work and settle into his isolated house, hunkering down with his grief, alcohol, thoughts of suicide, etc. One day, idly flipping channels, he watches a short silent movie with starring long-forgotten Hector Mann...a comedian he's never heard of. But the little film makes him laugh out-loud, and it's this gift that sends Zimmer on a quest to write a book about the films of Mann. There aren't many...all short subjects, and they're hard to find. Back in 1929, Mann disappeared off the face of the earth, and is long presumed to be dead. So his name has slipped into virtual nothingness. Zimmer works hard to correct that, and after a year of globe-hopping to watch rare copies of Mann's films, his book of criticism and appreciation comes out. Soon thereafter, Zimmer receives a note from New Mexico, asking him if he wants to come meet Hector Mann! Zimmer is skeptical, to say the least, and it isn't until a mysterious young lady shows up on his doorstep to practically drag him to New Mexico that he begins to believe that Zimmer might be alive afterall.

That's the shell of the first part of the book. A lot of it is told in flashbacks, as we see the life Mann led. Zimmer finds out a number of startling things about Mann's life.

The book is interesting. The stories about Mann are fascinating because they are a bit lurid. The characters Zimmer encounters are all damaged in some way or another. The common thread everyone has is a relationship to violent, early death. Perhaps the death of a loved one that came too soon. Or the death of an acquaintance that might be ones own fault. Also, death that may cause a form of insanity in the survivors.

I admired Mr. Auster's writing style. It felt literate, yet clean and devoid of needless grandstanding. Sometimes he goes on at great length about events that aren't perhaps quite as interesting as he hopes. But generally, I admire his economy and his inventiveness.

Where I run into trouble is in trying to affix a "deeper meaning" on all this. Clearly all the tragedy and pain, set against a backdrop of creating (as in creating films, or books or paintings), is meant to comment on the effects or value of illusion. The book could be saying that dwelling on the creative...the unreal...makes us vulnerable to people and decisions that can destroy us. Or it could be that despite our tendencies as creative people to make ourselves miserable and to overanalyze everything, our illusions live on as more important than us. Or it could be something else.

There's romance in the book as well, but it isn't tidy either. The people in the book lead untidy inner and outer lives. Is this because they are, to varying degrees, artists? Or is it because they are the inventions of an artist (the author, Paul Auster)? Often, when I read books that are about writing or other art forms, I always take with a grain of salt the "extra" anguish that these characters go through, because I worry that that the artist creating these artists is instilling them with a more tortured inner life in order to glorify their own perceived anguishes.

In the end, THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS was a fascinating read and an interesting novel. It's a fairly fast read and unlike anything else you might read. It doesn't talk down to the reader. But I can't say I was terribly moved by it. There are moments of real pain that come through to the reader, but largely, I felt I was held at arm's length. Nonetheless, I do recommend this book for adult readers.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2003
Paul Auster--writer, director, and one-time actor (look for his cameo in The Music of Chance)--has written another masterpiece with The Book of Illusions. For years, Auster has been plying audiences with the tricks of the postmodern trade: metafiction, hypertextual references, self-referentiality. Instead of encouraging the reader to lose him/herself in the text, his novels never let you forget that you are reading a work of fiction. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would make for a miserable reading experience, but Auster uses postmodernism as a tool to find deeper meaning, not merely as the literary equivalent of pyrotechnics.
It is hard to say much about The Book of Illusions without revealing too much, but on the surface the book is about a college professor who has lost his entire family to a plane crash, and in order to escape his thoughts of suicide he immerses himself in an in-depth study of Hector Mann, an old silent-film comedian who has not been seen or heard from in well over half a century. But when he turns the fruits of his depression into a book about Mann's films and gets an invitation to meet this virtuoso of the silver screen, he realizes that things--and people--are not always what they appear to be.
This engrossing story is brimming with wit, and leaves you with the feeling that you've read something more like a testimony than a novel. What Auster has done here is to create what all novelists strive for: a story that is extremely specific but never obscure, universal in theme but never cliche.
If you liked The Book of Illusions, try Auster's City of Glass.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2003
I actually listened to this book read by the author (which I usually don't like), but found it to be excellent on many levels. The audiobook is paced well, and Auster does a good job with the reading -- authors are very often poor at reading their own novels.
As to the novel, I was completely drawn into the story, and I like the layered plotting and lack of easy answers. The story concerns a man whose loss of his family has left him shattered. He loses himself in the story of a vanished silent film star, and in researching this man, he is brought into a relationship with a damaged woman. Auster's writing is incredible, and the allusions to Hollywood reporting, Hawthorne's short stories, and ultimately to the nature of illusions are consistently interesting and used well throughout the novel.
Initially I avoided the book because I'm not much interested in silent movies, and the jacket blurbs just didn't excite me. Don't make the same mistake I did in putting this off ... and if you commute, listen to the audiobook, it's well worth the price.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2003
I see that there are a lot of mixed reviews of The Book of Illusions, as well as some people who outright hated the novel. I don't blame them. As is true of any literature, Paul Auster's work is not for everybody. Before reading The Book of Illusions, I was also skeptical that his work would be for me.
However, I found myself drawn into the novel from shortly after the first sentence. By the time I was halfway through, the experience of following the characters and plot was so intense that I couldn't stand to put it down to do things as simple as eat or socialize with other people. It had been a long time since a novel had affected me to so deeply. Usually I read intellectual fiction with my head, hoping to learn something about life, or a particular culture or language, but The Book of Illusions brought my head and my heart together, combining post-modern passages, a fast-paced plot, and characters that are so well-developed that you feel like you have a genuine stake in what happens to them. It's like a pop novel for the intellectual: thought-provoking, occasionally pretentious (in all the right ways), but also exciting.
Some other reviewers have given away the main plot points, but I think it's best to read The Book of Illusions without knowing what exactly is going to happen (beyond what's written on the inside flap or back cover, anyway).
I have read very few books in my life that I would consider re-reading. They include Don Quijote, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Corelli's Mandolin, The Human Stain, and The Book of Illusions.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2004
After reading Mr. Auster's dopey Timbuktu (I wrote a damning review of that too) I thought the man was out of ideas, and The Book of Illusions proves it. Paul Auster is to literature what AC/DC is to rock music: His early stuff was great, but now it all sounds the same, a repackaging of the same material.

I saw Angus Young interviewed one time and when asked why AC/DC has made the same album ten times in a row he became irate and said "You're wrong! We've made the same album twelve times in a row!" I only wish Mr. Auster had the same modesty.

Simply put: Enough already with the stupid coincidences having to do with people's names; enough with coming a second away from death; enough with having someone save you and then feeling like you have to serve them to make cosmic amends; enough with characters who have reached the absolute bottom of the spiritual barrel. Enough.

If you're new to Mr. Auster, read the NY Trilogy or Moon Palace or The Music of Chance - even Leviathan. Those are where his ideas thrived, were alive, were penetrating and fresh. His recent efforts are all stale and predictable, just like an AC/DC song.
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