Sunday, October 21, 2007

Paul Auster/THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES

I was given this as a Christmas present last year, but have been 'saving' it. I've loved the other Austers I've read, so I was keeping this back - partly through trepidation that it might disappoint, but more to build the anticipation and add to the eventual enjoyment. After the string of severely disappointing books I've read recently, I felt that now was the time to look into this long-hoarded treat.

Auster has his quirks and foibles that may not be to everyone's taste. His stories have a studied simplicity, a parable-like directness. His characters regularly have names that seem heavy with potential symbolism - Wood, Glass, Dark, Minor - but in fact have none. He is dauntingly erudite (there's always at least one character who's an unusually voracious reader or a career academic, to justify the inclusion of numerous obscure anecdotes about Poe, Kafka, Wittgenstein). He's not, however, very good with dialogue or characterisation - everyone in his books is rather too obviously just a facet of his own intellect, emblematic of some idea or type rather than a fully-rounded person.

But you know what - I forgive him anything because he writes like a dream. This book is chock-full of neat jokes, wise insights, startling flights of fancy, brilliant descriptions. And it just reads so damned easily - it is a 'page-turner' in the very best sense: not just plot-rich but undemanding; it is the language as much as the incident (although it is a very eventful story) that compels you to race onwards.

This is probably his most accessible book. Though parts of it have the fable-like resonance of the New York Stories collection, it lacks their pretention and obscurity (I love them, but they are pretentious); The Brooklyn Follies is basically just a rollicking family saga. It is remarkably upbeat as well. Some terrible things happen in the book, but with one or two exceptions, everyone ends up happy. Almost all of the reversals-of-fortune are for the better: people miraculously lose weight, inherit fortunes, recover from serious illness, escape from bad marriages, patch up family disputes, rediscover purpose in their lives. And everyone finds love. And then all of this positivity is ironically undercut by the fact that Auster chooses to end the story on September 11th, 2001. It would seem that the lightness and happiness of the book are a reaction to the misery of that day; yet at the very end, Auster is perhaps glumly accepting that there is no way he can work such redemptive miracles in the post-9/11 world, that some wrongs cannot be righted.

I really wanted to give this (well, to give something) an *excellent rating, but I fear it falls just short. Much as I love his writing, I'm not sure if Auster can really do novels. The best of his work, I think, is the short stories. I also like New York Stories and The Music Of Chance, but these are very long short stories or novellas, not really novels. I didn't find any real coherence or purpose in The Brooklyn Follies; it's just a rag-bag of diverting tales, a disparate collection of writer's sketches loosely strung together into a single narrative.

It is a very good read, but not a great novel.

2 comments:

angelle said...

thanks for this. i just read new york trilogy a few months ago (i posted a review on here), and it was my first auster. i really enjoyed it, and have been trying to figure out what's the next auster i should try... i'd been looking at this...

FF said...

I've just read The Brooklyn Follies, and I had the same impressions you had. I like Auster very much, but I agree that he is at his best with shorter narratives. Thank you, it was nice reading my own confused ideas so well put.