History: This book was published in 2002.
Plot: Set in the late 1980s, the story is written from the perspective of David Zimmer, a university professor who, after losing his wife and children in a plane crash, falls into a routine of depression and isolation. After seeing one of the silent comedies of Hector Mann, an actor missing since the 1920s, he decides to occupy himself by watching all of Mann's films and writing a book about them. The publishing of the book, however, triggers another series of events that draw Zimmer even deeper into the actor's past.
The middle of the story is largely dedicated to telling the life story of Hector Mann, involving his self-imposed exile from his past life and career, which serves as a form of penance for his role in the death of a woman who loved him. In his last days, his wife sends a letter to Zimmer, requesting him to come to their New Mexico home to bear witness to Mann's final legacy of films. The events that ensue form the overarching story of Zimmer's rehabilitation from his reclusive state, and his coming to terms with the manner in which his family was killed. 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. However, when Zimmer arrives in New Mexico, he has not only fallen very quickly in love with Anna, but is introduced to his grieving and slightly insane wife, and learns that Mann doesn’t expect to live through the night. As expected, Mann dies the next day, and as was determined in a pact, all his films are to be burned. Zimmer leaves, and soon after, there is a heated argument between Anna, his lover, and Manns widow. Anna strikes her, accidentally killing her, and then she herself commits suicide.
Review: 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.
Opening Line: “Everyone thought he was dead.”
Closing Line: “I live with that hope.”
Quotes: ”Xanax, a potent, highly dangerous drug… use as directed and you’ll turn into a zombie.”