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The Book of Illusions: A Novel Paperback – October 27, 2009

3.8 out of 5 stars 130 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Vermont professor David Zimmer is a broken man. The protagonist of Paul Auster's 10th novel, The Book of Illusions, hits a period in which life seemed to be working aggressively against him. After his wife and sons are killed in an airplane crash, Zimmer becomes an alcoholic recluse, fond of emptying his bottle of sleeping pills into his palm, contemplating his next move. But one night, while watching a television documentary, Zimmer's attention is caught by the silent-film comedian Hector Mann, who had disappeared without a trace in 1929 and who was considered long-dead. Soon, Zimmer begins work on a book about Mann's newly discovered films (copies of which had been sent, anonymously, to film archives around the world). The spirit of Hector Mann keeps David Zimmer alive for a year. When a letter arrives from someone claiming to be Hector Mann's wife, announcing that Mann had read Zimmer's book and would like to meet him, it is as if fate has tossed Zimmer from one hand to the other: from grief and loss to desire and confusion.

Although film images are technically "illusions," this deft and layered novel is not so much about conscious illusion or trickery as about the traces we leave behind us: words, images, memories. Children are one obvious trace, but in this book, they are not allowed to carry their parents forward. They die early: Hector Mann losing his 3-year-old son to a bee sting just as David Zimmer has lost his two sons in the crash. The second half of The Book of Illusions is given over to a love affair, and to Zimmer's attempt to save something of Hector Mann, and of the others he has loved. In the end, what really survives of us on earth--what flickering immortality we are permitted--is left to the reader to surmise. --Regina Marler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

David Zimmer, an English professor in Vermont, is trying to rebuild his life-after his family perishes in an airplane crash-by researching the work of Hector Mann, a minor figure from the era of silent movies, in this enigmatic, elliptical 10th novel, one of Auster's best. As in much of the writer's fiction, the narrative revolves around coincidence, fate and odd resonances. Mann's world, like Zimmer's, collapses in a single instant, and Mann, like Zimmer, embarks on self-imposed exile as a way to deal with his grief and do penance. Mann disappeared at the height of his career in 1929, but when Zimmer's book about him is published in the 1980s, it elicits a mysterious invitation: would Zimmer like to meet Mann, who is alive and has been working in secret as actor/director Hector Spelling? The skeptical scholar is lured from Vermont by Alma Grund, who grew up around Mann and is writing his biography. As Grund and Zimmer fall in love, she fills in the decades-long gap in Mann's life-a strange American odyssey that culminated on a ranch in New Mexico where he made movies he refused to screen for anyone. As in previous novels, Auster here makes the unbelievable completely credible, and his overall themes are very much of a piece with those of earlier works: the "mutinous unpredictability of matter" and the way storytellers shape and organize unpredictability. A darker and more somber mood shadows this book; Mann and Zimmer both are tragic figures-even melodramatic-and their stories are compelling. Auster is a novelist of ideas who hasn't forgotten that his first duty is to tell a good story.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (October 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312429010
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312429010
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (130 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #333,382 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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!
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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By A Customer on September 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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