uster’s best parables fuse sleight-of-hand stories with a Chinese box approach to plot. This oily bit of sweet surrealism has George W. Bush, Daniel Pearl, and Dalí to thank for its backdrop. A shy magician named Owen Brick (“The Great Zavallo”) awakes to finds himself a combatant in a parallel-world United States locked in bitter Civil War between Bush’s government (“the Federals”) and secessionist states led by New York.
But even before young “corporal” Brick’s dilemma presents itself we already know he’s a figment of an older man’s imagination. The man is one-time book critic and amateur cinephile August Brill, now a wistful insomniac who wiles away the last years of life in the care of his divorced daughter Miriam and talkative grandchild Katya in a Vermont house. “I lie in the dark and tell myself stories,” explains Brill.
Brick’s madcap burden is Brill’s entertainment. When Brick is assigned by secessionist agents to kill the man he’s told is behind the Civil War, who of course is Brill himself, the circle comes round.
The ambiguity of identity is Auster’s bread and butter and he’s manages this household of half-baked ghosts with dexterity. Brill’s Civil War and Brick’s helplessness within it are obvious manifestations of world-weary anxiety, with Bush and Iraq in the mix.
But character at the service of allegory puts both at risk. Aside from Brill and Brick, the idea of the parable is more interesting than its residents. And when Brick vanishes, the nocturnal Brill left with granddaughter Katya to ponder family history and contemporary politics, bittersweet schmaltz reduces the once-promising whole into a minor nibble.