Literary Fiction ッ
THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES
By Paul Auster
Faber & Faber
Literary stars don’t always shine. Any flash of talent can be lost in the more sunless affairs of their fiction. And here Paul Auster, a truly talented novelist, takes on some truly dark themes. He sets out to probe the scars of our century, like Bush fils’ contested election, the Twin Towers attack – weighty subjects of politics and feeling, under which a great novelist might stretch their literary faculty till it twangs. But Auster’s snaps, and all too soon. He never quite gets things going.
While we can admire from afar our author’s bold experiment with narration – the protagonist, the ageing and in-remission Nathan Glass, is given the pen from Auster’s hand – in practice it’s a warning to those inclined to try the same.
See the slimiest of first-person narrators, the Humbert Humberts, the John Selfs – they stay low, lower than low, but are lent their creators’ high power to communicate the events of their lives. And here Auster is… what could the analogy be? It’s as if Hanks got lost in Gump and forgot that it was an act all along.
Of course, Hanks brought the best of his technique and the best of the character to the screen. Just like Amis with Self, Nabokov with Humbert. But Auster passes his pen, gives up command, and this is proved to be a liberty too far. All the bumps and flatness of an unpractised writer are laid out before us as a characteristic quirk. In every practical sense – don’t be fooled – The Brooklyn Follies is a book by N. Glass. And he has very little clue or etiquette.
Glass, at various turns, breaks his first-person narrative to instead read the mind of his nephew. Not in a speculative way, but by confidently detailing every thought in his head. So for times they share a single self, then split into two as abruptly as becoming one – at the break in a paragraph, a turn in the page.
In this way, Glass flits between omnipresent and omni-dumb. Or at least, he plays at being dumb. As with every ‘author’, our narrator knows exactly the outcome of his novel. Yet he insists on floating hypotheticals. In a random chapter, let me count… 18 questions are put to the reader, and no answer is given alongside. We’re left in the lurch, forced to read impatiently on.
Not bothered? Well, including dialogue there are actually 41 non-rhetorical, non-answered questions. That’s 55% of sentences in a five-page passage. Sticking to the narration, here’s a paragraph’s worth:
Where had Lucy found the money for the trip? How had she known Tom’s address? Had her mother helped her get away, or had she absconded on her own? And if Aurora had been involved, why hadn’t she contacted Tom in advance or at least sent a note with Lucy? … One way or another, what did the girl’s departure tell us about Aurora’s marriage? Was it the disaster we both feared, or had Tom’s sister finally seen the light and embraced her husband’s vision of the world? And yet, if harmony reigned in the household, what was their daughter doing in Brooklyn?
This narrative technique, if a technique at all – asking more questions to the reader than they’d ever want answered – is perhaps to bring an intensity, some thrill to the story. Unfortunately, it only succeeds at annoyance. If a writer is not at a point to give answers, she should not explicitly raise the question. And I could go on, but the crux of Glass’ faults is that he’s charmless. And where does this leave the real author?
I don’t mean to crap on Paul Auster, I’ve enjoyed his other novels. And there is a lot to be admired about going all-in like he did with his narrator – the risk just didn’t pay off. But crucially, neither does the promise of the book. The dustjacket and opening pages go and market our expectations towards a safari of human troubles, of both external and internal strains. Still there’s an unnervingly little sense of tragedy or hurt in this matter-of-factly ‘pain-filled’ book.
We’re guaranteed a slow crawl to the grave for Nathan Glass, but it’s not long before he’s given new life. And really we catch the whole cast on the upswing, curving away from their problems past. Auster’s characters bare smiles as circumstance unendingly rewards them. And there’s simply not a hurdle unbound before the end of each chapter – usually in the same chapter that the hurdle is first lain.
So let me go back on my words. It’s not that Auster doesn’t shine, it’s not that there’s no light emitted, no. It’s all light, in fact, and darkness is barred from the scene. By the end we’re crying for shadow, some emotional twist, a clamp on the nipple, just any modulation from the ever-smiling prose.
Worse still: far from tackling the topic, the very late hint towards 9/11 comes across as badly measured, even trite. It turns out not to be the monumental backdrop Auster relies on it being. Its mere suggestion, which the author underhandedly evokes, ending the upbeat action not hours before the first plane – its suggestion goes no way to bring calamity upon his Brooklynites. They will move on with their lives, presumably unscathed but under an ever-fading mist of collective grief – a mist fairly penetrable whether four or twenty years since.
And so, put simply, the author devotes his book to those who possess a luck unshakeable, lives unshakeable, even by cataclysmic events – and this, I think, is because they’re formed of cliché. The gay gallery owner, the wayward daughter of a respectable brood, the misogynist born-again nut. The bad guys are beaten, inheritances inherited, families reunited. And I’m sure none of this will act as a spoiler, because Auster gives nothing to surprise.
Yes, okay, really: I didn’t mean to crap on Paul Auster. But he took a dump on my bookshelf. He did, after all, put this shit in my hands.
The Brooklyn Follies
(UK: Faber & Faber, 2005)
Hardback, pp. 304