Monday, January 19, 2009

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

When Nathan Glass returns from the suburbs of New York City to the neighborhood of his birth in Brooklyn, he tells us that he's doing it to die quietly--his lung cancer is in remission but his life is in shambles, having been isolated by both his ex-wife and his daughter. Of course, any member of Oprah's Book Club will understand that this is only setup, and men like Nathan--weary, and ready to call it quits--are inevitably going to perk up through the rousing medicine of a good woman, a strong community, a loyal family, or a small child.

In the case of The Brooklyn Follies, it's pretty much all four. Nathan's renaissance begins when he discovers his once-promising nephew Tom slaving away miserably in a Park Slope bookstore. Tom's academic career has been derailed and his love life stalled indefinitely, and on top of that he hasn't heard from his sister Aurora since she asked him to walk her down the aisle months and months ago. Eventually, these two talkative sad sacks have their lives kickstarted by the appearance of Lucy, Aurora's daughter, who for some reason has decided to stop speaking.

And wouldn't you know it, the lovable scamp gives them a reason to survive? Nathan turns out to be a capable surrogate parent; no wonder, he seems to do very little wrong in this book which is ostensibly titled for his failures. Nathan is writing a book, in fact, that details his own follies as well as stories he has heard from life and history; yet Auster makes his character so sympathetic that surely his ex-wife and daughter must be terrible monsters for hating him.

What bothers me most about The Brooklyn Follies is its un-reflectiveness--it's a paean, a bucolic to a certain white-collar liberal lifestyle that treasures tolerance, diversity, and thoughtfulness. Of course, those are strong values, but I am not sure that Auster is aware of how self-congratulating his book seems. Take for instance, Aurora, whom Nathan eventually tracks down living with her husband in Winston-Salem, a religious fanatic and Christian cultist who has trapped her in her own room for months. It is impossible to receive Park Slope as the ur-Eden that Auster intends it without recognizing North Carolina its antithesis: As Nathan and Tom love their homosexual friends and jab incessantly at the religious right, so Aurora's husband and his community personify intolerance and oppression; Nathan prides himself in having "rescued her from North Carolina," but Auster makes it clear that North Carolina is a surrogate for particular worldviews and attitudes.

I am reminded of Noah Baumbach's movie The Squid and the Whale, which takes place in the same neighborhood as The Brooklyn Follies. I couldn't help but remember Jeff Daniels' character, a man who loves his family very much but can't help his own egotism and pomposity. Their attitudes and styles--even their addresses--are near identical, but only one of them seems to understand what it is to deal with folly. No, Nathan Glass is a white knight, and Park Slope is his kingdom.

It isn't that particular worldview I take objection to. It's that a novel that uses the same tactics with the area codes reversed--a novel about the preservation of simple country living, loving your neighbor, and Southern faithfulness at the expense of cosmopolitanism and liberalism--might make a best-seller but would be rightfully denounced by critics as smug and self-satisfied. (And let's admit, there are hundreds of those novels in print.) As a Brooklyner, I love Park Slope as much as the next man, but I'm not sure I've ever been to the idylls of Auster's novel.

And then there's the matter of the end:

It was eight o'clock when I stepped out onto the street, eight o'clock on the morning of September 11, 2001--just forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Just two hours after that, the smoke of three thousand incinerated bodies would drift over toward Brooklyn and come pouring down on us in a white cloud of ashes and death.

But for now it was still eight o'clock, and as I walked along the avenue under that brilliant blue sky, I was happy, my friends, as happy as any man who had ever lived.

What's the point? That Nathan's hard-earned happiness, his revitalization, is all about to come crashing down with the World Trade Center? That's too grim for such a saccharine novel, and without suggesting that Nathan knows someone in the tower, out of proportion. No, I think that Auster is suggesting here that September 11th dealt a serious blow to the Park Slope worldview he champions. After all, the book's backdrop is the contested election of 2000, and Auster and his characters frequently stop to note their grim displeasure with George W. Bush and the Republican machine. The Brooklyn Follies posits Nathan and his community as antithetical to ideas which Bush and the Christian cult in Winston-Salem embody; it seems likely that this puzzling ending is meant to represent an impending victory for the forces of intolerance.

But that's just my guess. The truth is, the ending defies anything but the slightest interpretation, and as a result actually seems more gratuitous. What right does this man have, whose idea of folly is so comic and self-assurance so unflinching, to stitch his own story to that one?


Amanda said...

I've only read one Auster book - Oracle Night - and consider it one of the worst books I read in 2008. It turned me off of Auster completely. This one doesn't sound much better.

Jim said...

I didn't really like the New York Trilogy either, as much as I wanted to.

Christopher said...

Really? I thought New York Trilogy was pretty good. A sight better than this, for sure.

Nathan said...

It never feels good when your home state is used as a symbol for homophobia and religious extremism.

And I think you meant Opera's Book Club.