Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Another Auster Pretzel; Malcolm’s Burdock Moment; and a Wallace Stevens Masterpiece

Summer’s almost over, but that doesn’t mean we’re ready to go back to school, back to work, back to the shriek and clank of the city.

Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (Henry Holt, $23) is set in the “great American wilderness”—or anyway Vermont—and strains, late in the game, to strike a cheery note, but it’s basically dark (see the portentous title) and urban in character, a striving, unhappy, crowded book that wants to do more than it does. A pastoral idyll it ain’t.

Mr. Auster has been trying for decades to squeeze emotional zing into his cerebral concoctions—he succeeded best in Leviathan, 16 years ago. The new novel, which takes place over the course of one sleepless night in the head of a 72-year-old retired book critic (they retire? really?), is more disjointed than usual, and in the usual way: The head remains a stranger to the heart.

The retired critic, August Brill, tells himself a story so as to avoid sinking glumly into thoughts about his dead wife and his 23-year-old granddaughter’s dead boyfriend. The story is brutal, with all the twists expected of an Auster pretzel. It’s about a parallel universe where an American civil war rages, and a character named Owen Brick is charged with assassinating August Brill, who’s brought the civil war into being with the wretched tale he’s spinning to fill the insomniac void.

“By putting myself into the story, the story becomes real,” Brill tells himself. “Or I become unreal, yet one more figment of my own imagination. Either way, the effect is more satisfying, more in harmony with my mood—which is dark, my little ones, as dark as the obsidian night that surrounds me.”

Later, to counteract all that gloom, Brill’s granddaughter comes into his room and we get “Truth Night at Castle Despair”: She asks him cute questions about his wife (her grandmother), and they engage in unbearably cute, cloying, chirping dialogue until dawn breaks.

 

I’D RATHER BE LOOKING at pictures.

Specifically, Janet Malcolm’s pictures of a “rank weed.” As she put it in an interview with The New York Times last week, our favorite intellectual and meta-biographer has become “a photographer of burdock.”

Taking Richard Avedon portraits as her model, she has put together a book that consists of a 750-word text and 28 photographs—of burdock leaves, big floppy, fleshy leaves, some of them 2 feet long, propped up in glass bottles against a white background. “Each leaf,” she writes, “assumes its own pose and exhibits, almost flaunts, its individuality.”

The photographs in Burdock (Yale, $65) are weird and wonderful. As Ms. Malcolm predicts, the camera “confers aesthetic value on the apparently plain and worthless.” She makes out of this apparent simplicity a work of modernist art, spare, elegant, evocative.

Ms. Malcolm’s preference for the “older, flawed leaves” led me to think of her books as a kind of graphic equivalent of Wallace Stevens’ “The Poems of Our Climate”:

I
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations—one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

 

II
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

 

III
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Another Auster Pretzel; Malcolm’s Burdock Moment; and a Wallace Stevens Masterpiece