January 11, 2007
Paul Auster: The Brooklyn Follies
About halfway through The Brooklyn Follies, the narrator Nathan Glass asks:
Why do I linger over these trivial details? Because the truth of the story lies in the details, and I have no choice but to tell the story exactly as it happened.
It could be a manifesto for Auster’s fiction. Often his novels seem to be almost randomly written, made up as he goes along – and as has been observed before, his endings can be so weak they are better termed stoppings. It is his strength and weakness, but in my experience, as you work through Auster’s output, it’s something you’re more and more willing to make allowances for, and eventually even to relish.
In The Brooklyn Follies, which for the paperback Faber have issued in an out-of-sync cover, all bright and eager for a Richard & Judy sticker, this habit reaches a sort of apotheosis. On the one hand it’s more grounded than a lot of his stuff – no sentient dogs, no future dystopias, and most of all absolutely no postmodern paddywhackery – but on the other hand the web of coincidence and chance that ties together the story strands and characters is more tenuous than ever before. This is a story of religious cults, art forgery, abandoned children, blackmail, unrequited love and everything else (it seems) that Auster had lying around in his latest red notebook. At just about any plot hinge in the book, one could reasonably shout out in protest at the implausibility.
And yet for those softened up into Auster’s ways, it has a bizarre charm, an almost soothing quality. It is the ‘trivial details’ of storytelling itself that is being celebrated here, and – it occurred to me for the first time – the reason why endings are unimportant in Auster’s fiction is because the ending is outside the story, and the perpetual present of the story is what matters. Or as Glass (another monosyllable surname, one first seen I think in The New York Trilogy, but with a friend called Wood to balance it out this time) in the book says:
When a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear. For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.
And it’s for this reason – charming and paper-thin, engrossing and ridiculous, serious but disposable – that The Brooklyn Follies is almost impossible to rate, and could equally appal or appeal depending on one’s mood. But I’ll rank it on the basis that while it’s in some ways quintessential Auster – and a book which has helped me understand his whole output – it’s not a good place to start. And that balances the reader with the author – who never seems to find a good place to end.