David Zimmer, a college professor in Vermont, spends weeks and months drinking alcohol on his sofa, growing an unkempt beard and wallowing in his own misery and filth after his wife and children plummet to their deaths in a plane crash. One day, on television he catches a special about slapstick comedians who used to perform in 1920's black-and-white silent films. They talk about a film by one Hector Mann, and while watching one of this actor's comedies, something happens to David that symbolizes the harbinger of major change in his life:
"....it made me laugh. That might not sound important, but it was the first time
I had laughed at anything since June, and when I felt that unexpected spasm rise
up through my chest and begin to rattle around in my lungs, I understood that I
hadn't hit bottom yet, that there was still some piece of me that wanted to go
on living." (pg. 9)
After intensely researching and publishing a book about this actor who, at the climax of his stardom, left his Hollywood home sixty years ago and disappeared from the public eye forever, a letter comes in the mail. It's an invitation from a woman named Frieda, who invites David to meet Hector. From here, the main journey starts.
The character David Zimmer comparing film and literary (pg. 14):
"No matter how beautiful or hypnotic the images sometimes were, they never
satisfied me as powerfully as words did. Too much was given, I felt, not
enough was left to the viewer's imagination, and the paradox was that the
closer movies came to simulating reality, the worse they failed at
representing the world--which is in us as much as it is around us."
I, at first, wrote this quote down because I thought its content was brilliant. But upon looking at it again and thinking about the story and David's relation to Hector Mann and his films, I think the character might have been speaking about himself without knowing it. All is eventually revealed about Hector's life before and after his disappearance, and a lot of it bears resemblance to David's own life. But this is only unraveled as the protagonist digs deeper.
In a particular scene where David is being held at gunpoint by the character Alma, he speaks about feeling this....sort of....transcendance, where this rift in reality occurs and for a small period of time he lives as someone else though he doesn't know who. The laugh that hits David in the beginning and starts the story going becomes the catalyst for him to eventually discover, through the consequences of love, conquering fear, isolation, finding purpose for himself and other themes, that his life has been lived and Hector Mann is a way for David to look at himself from the outside and set himself on track again after tragedy. Perhaps the laugh itself was a version of that rift.
A lot of subtle but key things happen in the story, so it's difficult to attempt to pin down anyone or two or fives interpretations of subtext. But I will definitely say that there is coherence, both on the surface of the narrative and underneath it. This, combined with its accessibility makes the book definitely worth recommendation.