In my Postmodern American Fiction class this past semester, we were assigned to write a page reflection each week on the book that we read. I actually really enjoyed writing these reflections because they were a chance to choose a specific aspect of the book and discuss it in depth without needed to come to any precise conclusions or arguments. In fact, I liked it so much that I’ve decided to continue on the process this summer! Along with reviews I’ll be sharing these reflections, brief discussions on novels that I’ve read without any value judgment or rating on my part. Let me know what you think!
While watching what is deemed to be Hector Mann’s last film known to the public, David remarks that “we are looking at him as he looks at himself, and in this eerie doubling of perspectives, we watch him confront the fact of his own annihilation. Double or nothing” (Auster 53). This latter phrase struck me as both interesting and important: interesting because it is strange to think of a human identity as being something that can be doubled or reduced to nothing, and important because of the implications of this very contradiction. One could read this statement as it appears to be most obviously written–something is either double or nothing–or, I would argue, one could read this as something being simultaneously double and nothing. Here is where we can see a connection with the basic tenets of quantum theory: conceptually we understand that light is both a particle and a wave, but it could also be observed as either/or depending on how it is measured.
Paul Auster’s novel The Book of Illusions is riddled with instances of “double or nothing,” from names and puns to women, fathers, and actions. For instance, Frieda Spelling also writes her name as Mrs. Hector Mann in her letters to David. Is she both of these identities? One of them? Neither? Furthermore, when David describes the multiple ways Hector portrayed himself to the media he remarks: “Put these contradictions together, and you wind up with nothing, the portrait of a man with so many personalities and family histories that he is reduced to a pile of fragments, a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces no longer connect” (Auster 83). This statement offers another way to look at the phrase “double or nothing,” for David seems to suggest that too much multiplicity can lead to a blurring or even loss of meaning. In other words, more than two options may lead to nothingness, to an ambiguous mess of possibilities too numerous to keep track of.
Perhaps this is Auster’s way of commenting on the seemingly arbitrariness of language: puns are intelligible when a word has two meanings, but what if it has more than two? What if a metaphor can be interpreted in multiple ways? Does it have multiple meanings? Or does it have no meaning at all, since it is left up to so much interpretation? These are the sort of questions and ideas that haunted my reading of The Book of Illusions, a novel that once again plays with themes and problems that quantum theory also endeavors to address.
Thoughts on The Book of Illusions? Have you ever read a book that plays with the multiplicity of language in a similar way? Let me know in the comments section below!