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.


  1. John,
    For all of the comments I have read on Auster, whether on Palimpsest or here, I have never encountered anything on his non-fiction. Of his non-fiction I have read The Red Notebook and The Invention of Solitude, both of which were my introduction to Auster (as well as large parts of Hand to Mouth). The Red Notebook is a collection of true experiences in his life, some of which are slight indeed, but many of which, I would imagine, loom significantly in his fiction; he seems to be that sort of deep miner of his life for his fiction. In his PR interview (see below) he says that everything in The Red Notebook happened to him. How Austerian is that comment ?

    The Invention of Solitude isn a stunning piece of work. He disinters his father’s life after his death and uncovers a remarkable incident in his family’s history, but not as remarkable as the man he finds his father not be. It is difficult to believe that the absence of a man could be so fully depicted. Ultimately one can believe the experiences recounted in these short books could have happened to Auster.

    I then read Travels in the Scriptorium. A number of friends asked how I could have understood a page of this in the absence of any knowledge of his fiction. Fortunatley I had found a lengthy interview with him in the back issues of The Paris Review. This gave me a sufficient number of the references required to make any sense of the book. A very Beckettian start I thought. No surprise in some ways as Auster met with him in his early years in Paris, and has contributed an essay to the Grove Atlantic edition of the complete works of Beckett. A maginifcent set, I must add.

    Good to see that you are blogging at last; there was always a space waiting for you I’ve thought. One question: while some people are very interested in bookshelves and the like, as per Scott’s blog, I wonder more about how people find the time to read so many books. I see from your Palimpsest 2007 list that you were in double figures before the end of the month. So how, where do you find the time ? Weekend retreats in the local monastery ?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Quink (I know you’ve recently delurked on Palimpsest, but do I know you from anywhere else?). I must admit I rarely read non-fiction, which I say with no sense of pride. The Invention of Solitude I’ve seen around though, and you make it sound appealing: I’m intrigued but also surprised to know that Mr Metafiction in fact bases some of his work in his own experiences.

    As for reading time, (a) I don’t have children (yet), (b) I can read at lunchtime in my job, and (c) I generally have a book perched on my hip at all times so I can continue reading if I have five minutes to spare. I also discovered, through comparison with others, that I read quite quickly on a page-by-page basis, though I didn’t think I did. There is finally an unattractive element of mania in my reading: often I find myself reading as much for completion as for the pleasure of what’s in front of me. In fact I would rather like to slow it down a little, wallow more, but it’s a struggle against habit. Mind you, I’m reading John Banville at the moment, so if anyone can slow me down he can.

    As for the blog, it’s really just a place to collect my comments, as much for my benefit as anyone else’s, but I’ll be posting up earlier ones as and when I can over the coming weeks, and trying to jig about with the format to make it more easily navigable.

  3. Haven’t read your reviews of the above yet, John, as I haven’t read these three particular Austers and I didn’t want to risk learning anything that might otherwise surprise me when I read the books. I just finished The New York Trilogy which I found intriguing. I love his precise, methodical style and his mischievous game-playing. The questions and puzzles those three stories left have made me thirsty for more. Which Auster would you recommend after the trilogy, bearing in mind it was the first of his work I’ve read? Thanks, and I look forward to perusing your reviews above after I’ve read the books themselves.

  4. Leyla, my usual recommendation for new(ish) Auster reader is The Book of Illusions, which isn’t particularly representative of his novels, but is very satisfying and contains several of his usual tropes – trauma, art, stories within stories. I also highly rate The Music of Chance, probably his most Beckettian story.

  5. Thanks, John. The volume from which I read The NY Trilogy doesn’t include them (it’s volume one of his Collected Novels, and includes only In the Country of Last Things and Moon Palace apart from the trilogy), but I will hunt out your recommendations.

  6. I do still think The Music Of Chance is his best written piece of work, though my personal favourites are The Invention Of Solitude, Moon Palace and The New York Trilogy. Having said that, I can’t say he’s written a bad one, and I still suggest that The Book Of Illusions has the best first page of any book I can remember. Try putting it down after that!

  7. I think The Invention of Solitude is the only Auster I haven’t read – I picked it up last year when looking for other ‘literature of fatherhood’ to complement Roth’s Patrimony. As to weaker links in the oeuvre, I can’t remember much about Mr Vertigo, and I actively disliked Leviathan the first time I (part-)read it, but then loved it when I went back to it later. I wrote here about Travels in the Scriptorium and felt, as we are culturally obliged to say these days, pretty ‘meh’ about it.

  8. It’s a marvellous book and, in your current circumstances of course, the perfect time to read it (time permitting!). I found it a deeply moving piece of work, and full of the kind of tragi-comic moments that leave you in a state of melancholic mirth. The first time the writer takes his first born to see his father is one such moment. What might have been an occasion loaded with meaning and weight becomes just that for all the wrong reasons. Auster’s father wanders over to the new parents who are stood proudly beside the pram containing the new addition to the family. Grandfather Auster spends a fraction of a second peering into the pram, looks at his son and daughter-in-law and says, ‘A beautiful baby, and good luck with it.’ He then moves on to something else and the moment passes. It’s the kind of exchange that typifies the book I’d say. All dads should read it!

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