A review of The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

As Nathan’s own book of follies grows in an almost Rabelasian style, there are botched attempts at love and lust, outrageous names like “Marina Luisa Sanchez Gonzalez”, a physical and metaphysical quest towards a fictional construct called the “Hotel Existence”, subtle and not so subtle references to Auster’s earlier novels, a character named James Joyce who precedes the most Joycean of chapters titled “A Night of Eating and Drinking” which mirrors Ulysses’ ”Circe” chapter with its sudden swish into drunken theatre, fraudulent manuscripts, and a literary scandal.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Brooklyn Follies
By Paul Auster
Faber
September 2006, Paperback, $A22.95, ISBN 9780571234554,

Paul Auster is the king of subterfuge. His novels always contain little puzzles, mise en abyme, reversals and twists without seeming to. The subtle capability of his writing, and the mingling of playfulness with serious depth, is his signature, and this style is as apparent as ever in his latest novel The Brooklyn FolliesThe Brooklyn Follies reads easily, and its Victorian simplicity masks the trickery behind the narrative, but there’s nothing light about this book. It contains all the elements of good fiction: memorable, fun characters, an engaging plot, and the keynote of literary fiction – transcendence, but its tongue-in-cheek, occasionally black twists turns the standard narrative on its head.

The story itself is relatively straightforward. Nathan Glass, narrator and protagonist, has just moved to Brooklyn, the place of his birth, to die quietly after Cancer treatment, a divorce, retirement, and house settlement. The end of his life is the beginning of his life, both in terms of setting and in the way he begins to claw together some meaning out of the wreckage. With false humility, he decides to write The Book of Human Folly in which he would explore his own foibles and acts of stupidity along with those of his fellow human beings. Nathan is a likeable character, and his attraction to the “slapstick moments of everyday life” is charming enough even in the face of his initial, clearly rhetorical ennui:
I had given myself up for dead, and once the tumor had been cut out of me and I’d gone through the debilitating ordeals of radiation treatment and chemo, once I’d suffered the long bouts of nausea and dizziness, the loss of hair, the loss of will, the loss of job, the loss of wife, it was difficult for me to imagine how to go on. Hence Brooklyn. (3)

What is also charming in a roundabout way is the way that his ‘real’ life begins to develop a series of slapstick moments that become the subject of Auster’s narrative, so that the book within the book is also the book itself – a self-parody that works so seamlessly that it’s nearly invisible.

Nathan also reminds us that we shouldn’t blind ourselves to life by giving in to either despair or by becoming lazy through the use of platitudes and the “exhausted phrases and hand-me-down ideas that cram the dump sites of contemporary wisdom.”(2) Despite the apparent depression that opens the book, it is clear that Nathan’s love of life is strong enough to avoid that kind of sloth. Life’s simply too good to miss out on our rich faux pas—a subtext that continues to add depth to the novel as it progresses towards its stunning conclusion.

As the novel progresses, Auster builds his character cast with more likeably incongruous people, including Nathan’s nephew, Tom Wood, bookstore owner Harry Brightman, Nancy Mazzuchelli (also known as the B.P.M – Beautiful Perfect Mother) with the “resonant tonality of a born Brooklynite”, Harry Brightman, the flamboyant bookstore owner with a mysterious but equally flamboyant past, and his temporarily mute but savvy great niece Lucy. The neat plot and rich characters would be strong enough to hold their own in a straightforward Victorian novel, but there are plenty of post-modern shenanigans here which would be a disaster in a lesser writer’s hands but which work perfectly. Nathan’s slightly purple prose is full of moments that border on kitsch, but which somehow still add up to linguistic beauty:
For several minutes, I am prey to a steady flow of shifting sensations. The feel of the soft, well-tended grass underfoot. The sound of a horsefly buzzing past my ear. The smell of the grass. The smells of the honeysuckle and lilac bushes. The bright red tulips planted around the edge of the house. The air begins to vibrate, and a moment later a small breeze is wafting over my face. (171)

As Nathan’s own book of follies grows in an almost Rabelasian style, there are botched attempts at love and lust, outrageous names like “Marina Luisa Sanchez Gonzalez”, a physical and metaphysical quest towards a fictional construct called the “Hotel Existence”, subtle and not so subtle references to Auster’s earlier novels, a character named James Joyce who precedes the most Joycean of chapters titled “A Night of Eating and Drinking” which mirrors Ulysses’ ”Circe” chapter with its sudden swish into drunken theatre, fraudulent manuscripts, and a literary scandal. All of this is as joyous and full of life as it is chaotic. The narrative never loses its direction nor the book ever slip into unreadability. Instead, amidst the playful is the very profundity it makes fun of:
They wanted to bring their loved one back to life, and I would do everything humanly possible to grant their wish. I would resurrect that person in words, and once the pages had been printed and the story had been bound between coveres, they would have something to hold on to for the rest of their lives. Not only that, but something that would outlive them, that would outlive us all.

One should never underestimate the power of books(302)

The stunning ending is a shock which I won’t reveal here, although it so colours the extraordinary narrative which precedes it, that the book almost demands a complete re-reading in its light. Like most of Auster’s novels, The Brooklyn Follies is a book that changes on each re-reading, showing its nuances as the partners, emotions, and meaning all change and grow as they move through folly. This is, of course, a novel which is an ode to folly, and the tender, beautiful human folly it praises is exactly the antidote to its ending. Auster’s skill in creating both a superbly entertaining, and exceptionally clever novel, which also manages to achieve the most extraordinary secular spirituality is beyond compare.

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