I won't go into any more details in case you want to read the story for yourself, but Alma is the keeper of the "rest of the story" as it relates to Hector Mann. Zimmer soon finds out what happened in the intervening years between Hector's Hollywood disappearance (and the cause of that disappearance) and the arrival of Frieda Spelling's note. This is where the complexity comes into play. The narrative lines are multifaceted as Auster has Zimmer narrate the story of Hector through Alma. We are seeing Hector's life through his eyes but as told by Alma through Zimmer and ultimately through Auster as author. At the same time we are following two different stories: the story of Alma and Zimmer and the story of Hector (and eventually Frieda Spelling). And ultimately all of this is Zimmer mirroring Chateaubriand and looking back on events from the grave.
I don't feel like I can do the work justice in trying to describe the various story threads or their potential symbolic meaning but let me offer a few areas that seem ripe for discussion:
- It seems to me that Auster is commenting on art as obsession. Zimmer, Mann, and Alma each in their own way are obsessed with capturing something in their art and find themselves in turn captured by it. Zimmer and Alma are focused on the written word and Mann on film. These characters take their creations beyond mere profession or hobby. Zimmer absorbs Mann's films and then pours them out into the written word. This process is carried out in almost complete isolation and with a obsessive focus. The Mann's obsession with making films encompasses their entire lives. The process requires everything they have and they identify it as the central focus of their lives. The driving force behind Alma's life is the biography of Mann; this is what motivates her actions and centers her existence. And in the end, the destruction of her work leads to her own destruction. The single film Zimmer is able to view at the ranch involves this concept as well.
- Another theme that stands out is the ability of seemingly small circumstances to alter a person's life forever. Zimmer's insistence that his wife and children fly out of Boston - ironically to avoid a small prop plane deemed unsafe - leads to the tragedy that nearly destroys his life. Hector Mann's flat tire leads to the tragedy that changes his life. Zimmer only becomes aware of Mann by randomly flipping through cable channels. He narrowly escapes killing himself because a gun's safety catch is left on. As the story spirals to a conclusion, Zimmer notes that his introduction to the ranch seems to have set off a chain reaction of tragic proportions. Throughout the book small events have large repercussions.