Nope. Not even funny. Paul Auster’s “The Brooklyn Follies”

Auster, Paul (2006), The Brooklyn Follies, Faber and Faber
ISBN 0-571-22499-7

Since this review is going to end with a strong recommendation to never touch the book, do not get this advice wrong. Preferably, do not read the book. If you have to, here’s what you do: after finishing it, pick up immediately any other Auster book on your shelf. Since The Brooklyn Follies is quite an atypical book to start your Auster reading I’m guessing you have one. So, pick one of them, preferably a current one, Oracle Night, Timbuktu, Book of Illusions, any of these. Read a page or two, somewhere from the middle. If you’re perceptive, you’ll notice a funny thing. The whole of the Brooklyn Follies is based upon a single conceit. This is a book purportedly written by Nathan, who is clearly supposed to be an idiot. It hinges upon the idea of a good writer using the voice of a bad writer. It is full of Nathan’s grandiose phrases, his self delusions, his sense of ‘humor’. As a writer, Auster is not prone to subtleties. He might as well have highlighted the important phrases with magic marker. And yet the book is terribly written from the first line to the last, which is where my advice comes in. Well, we’ll return to this in a few moments. Let’s first look at the book from a different angle.

Nathan, an oafish retired insurance salesman, is writing a book recording his life’s follies. He moves to Brooklyn, expecting to die in the near future. He has recently fought cancer, successfully, in all likelihood. He has been born and raised in Brooklyn, so, in anticipation of his physical demise, that’s where he returns. In Brooklyn he meets his cousin Tom, whose promising career has ended up behind the greasy wheel of a New York cab. We, the deplorable readers, are apprised of his downfall from wunderkind to cabbie in a chapter called “Purgatorio”, which on the one hand continues the sad tradition of using Dante’s wonderful poem for hundreds of bad or worse similes (most recently encountered in the blurbs of my German edition of Wassili Grossman, but I digress). This is of course Nathan the self important oaf speaking, but this sort of thing isn’t exactly rare and after a few dozen of these, it begins to grate. But I digress again. On the other hand, the chapter, like most chapters in the book, is stocked with descriptions like these: “It wasn’t that he had ever wanted a great deal from life, but the little he had wanted turned out to have been beyond his grasp”. My little pet philosopher here stole a few peeks now and then and retreated groaning after a few seconds.

Back to plot. Both these men come with baggage. Nathan has a daughter from a marriage that ended when the wife presumably had to listen to him once too often. He had a falling-out with that daughter and his worries about righting his relationship with her at what he (still) thinks is his life’s sundown provide a constant talking point throughout the book. Eventually he buys her an expensive necklace and writes an abject letter of apology since, you know, there’s nothing better to charm a woman than generous and groveling men. And wouldn’t you know, it works, the daughter returns to his fold crying, asking (at his knee, one presumes) for his wise words. Speaking of wisdom, the book contains a few excellent descriptions of itself. The best comes early, just exchange “she” for “he”:

It’s a rare day when she speaks in anything but platitudes – all those exhausted phrases and hand-me-down ideas that cramp the dump sites of contemporary wisdom

I digress. Back to the two unhappy campers. Well, Nathan, as mentioned, starts recording his life’s idiocies in what he labels the “Book of Follies” (at a particularly inane moment, a discussion between him and Tom, who majored in literature, is recorded, where Nathan complains of digressing so much and Tom tells him (do I hear swelling strings?) that he’s now becoming a real writer. Bah). Into that book also go whatever idiocies he commits in the course of the events of The Brooklyn Follies (yes yes I know). That’s that.

Now Tom. The mere fact that Tom is unmarried is apparently no reason for the author (which? Yes, I’ll come to that) not to issue him with a woman to care for. In Tom’s case, it’s his wayward sister, who cavorts from bed to bed and man to man and gets into trouble at every corner. Funny thing. The only promiscuous person in the book is a woman, she gets punished for it (by life) by ending up in the most evilly pure environment Auster (Nathan?) could think of, a Christian fundamentalist sect. In the end, having returned to the fold, she is chaste and happy. These are, spoilers, I guess I should have issued a warning, but really, it will not actually spoil the book for you, because there are many other plot lines in the course of the book. And here we encounter the one strength of Auster and this book in particular: he creates great characters. Not in a realist novel kind of way but in a Tim Burton movie kind of way. I may be influenced by watching the first season finale of Pushing daisies in the background right now, but plots and characters would have made, at the hands of the right director, a wonderful movie. There are so many scenes I could point to. It would be a warm movie, uplifting, something to watch again and again, in full, warm colors. A really, really great movie. Conceivably. The trouble with writing is, well, writing.

Thus, instead of reveling in the plot and characters, we get stuck with dour old Nathan and his dour, mostly younger friends. The whole point of the book is humor. His spiel with Nathan’s voice, Nathan’s preposterous grandiosity and his constant jocular joking is supposed to be funny. And funny books are sometimes not overwhelmingly well written, so there’s a loophole, right? Nope. This book is not even funny. I suppose it could be another one of the book’s follies that the narrator manages to fumble every single joke. Even if he starts off well, he does not know where to stop and follows every phrase or sentence with humorous potential with a dull paragraph of dour earnestness. As I say, I have an idea why his wife wanted to leave him. And then there is Tom, who enables Nathan to include pages and pages of dull and idiotic patter about literature. It’s not that he’s factually wrong most of the time, because he isn’t. The tone is that of an overeager underachiever with a book by the typewriterslashcomputer, typing up the details on Kafka nice and tidy. He makes a few tiny mistakes but the bulk of it is correct, factually. The whole of this is often used for a kind of adult, pseudo-academic humor. And, dull as this is as statements on literature, this, too, is not even funny. There is a doubly intended funniness here, one by Nathan and the other by Auster and none of the two works.

This two-faced dullness is what I will discuss now that this review is coming to a close. Clearly, Auster is trying to use Nathan’s qualities as a hack for humorous purposes. There is a complicated system of reference connecting The Brooklyn Follies to the “Book of Follies”, since the author never steps out from behind his curtain. From first to last sentence it’s Nathan’s book. So what do we do with the clearly marked badness? Who do we send the check for bungled storytelling to? Who do we sue for wasting our time? Is Nathan playing with his readers, a bad writer trying to seem a worse writer, by the ham-fisted way of doing it exposing himself as the former? Is the whole story a machination of Nathan? I have hinted at this before. Is Nathan a sad old man trying to concoct a life more interesting than the one he actually leads? Well, as they say, we only have the book, and it says nought. There are no hints that I found that would point in such a direction. So why do I call Auster a bad writer? Is there evidence in the book that it is not all Nathan’s voice? No. But here we return to the beginning of this piece. Take any of his recent books and you will find a huge amount of the same sentences, the same *coughs* humor, the same sameness. It’s Auster’s voice all right, with very cheap bits of “Nathan” tacked on a few times. This novel is a huge failure. As a movie it would have succeeded, and as a novel written by a different writer, it would also have succeeded. Auster has his strengths, and I still remember the novel’s characters vividly, if somewhat uneasy at the heavy stench of sexism (Nathan’s?) pervading the book, writing prose just is not one of them.

So, I’d like to say I tried Auster’s method and created the voice of a believably self-important hack, but if you look at my other writing here, that’s just me. Same with Auster.

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8 thoughts on “Nope. Not even funny. Paul Auster’s “The Brooklyn Follies”

  1. Pingback: Paul Auster: The Brooklyn Follies - World Literature Forum

  2. I totally agree with you… The Brooklyn Follies was my first Auster and I was tempted to stop reading and never touch another novel by Paul Auster. Good to know that I’m not the only one who felt that way!

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  6. Pingback: Manqué: Paul Auster’s “In the Country of Last Things” « shigekuni.

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