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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Cheese and Squeeze

Annalee Newitz at i09 presents Ten of the Kinkiest Science Fiction Books You’ll Ever Read. This one’s my favorite

Set on a planet of psychically-gifted people who embrace sexual diversity and peace, the series is focused mainly on sexual slavery and war. Our heroine is a prostitute (a noble calling on her world) who holds the “high couch” of her town – basically, she’s the sex duchess. Unfortunately she’s always being kidnapped or taken to other worlds where she’s tied up, forced to have degrading sex, and (of course) has lots of tearful, shame-faced orgasms. Silly and pulpy, the first novel in the series is basically a swashbuckler with kinky bondage thrown in between sword fights. Also, there is a giant flying cat.

About Chuck

Thinking back, actually, ‘self-infatuation’ strikes me as a rather ill-chosen word. It isn’t so much that I like or love myself. Rather, I’m sentimental about myself. (I say, is this normal for someone my age?) What do I think of [myself]? I think: ‘Charles Highway? Oh, I like him. Yes, I’ve got a soft spot for old Charles. He’s all right is Charlie. Chuck’s…okay.’

from Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers.

Hidden: Brian Evenson’s “The Open Curtain”

Evenson, Brian (2006), The Open Curtain, Coffee House Press
ISBN-10 1-56689-188-4
ISBN 13 978-1-56689-188-2

In fact it is impossible to comprehend the actions of the murderous Lafferty brothers, or any other Mormon Fundamentalist, without first making a serious effort to plumb their theological beliefs, and that requires some understanding of LDS history, along with an understanding of the complex and highly fluid teachings of the religion’s remarkable founder, Joseph Smith. The life of Smith and the history of his church may be considered from myriad perspectives, of course . And therein lies the basis for the Mormon leadership’s profound unhappiness with my book.

(A Response from Jon Kracauer to his critics)

This book is hard to describe without spoiling it for the reader. It’s a tightly wound tale of horror, although not in the sense of the recent wave of splatter movies. Its brand of horror is akin to the brand of horror in Doris Lessing’s terrifying The Fifth Child. There are murders in the book, dismemberments, stabs, cuts, and strangulations, yet the novel is far from grisly. The blood is decorative, ritual. There are numerous rituals in the novel, rituals, however, which are an integral part of the horror. There is, in the middle of the novel, at the point where events really take a steep downward turn for the protagonists, a strange marriage ceremony. Strange to me, but apparently a faithful depiction of a Mormon wedding ceremony. It bears remarkable similarities to Salman Rushdie’s masterfully dense novel of partitions, marriages and Pakistan, Shame. In Rushdie’s novel, it was a delightful, tender, erotic episode where two people find each other not only despite rituals, but find ways to use them for their own ends. In a way, in The Open Curtain, a similar episode is described, and this time, too, the ritual is put to individual use, or as one of the characters puts it “we pulled a fast one on God”. Evenson, a former Mormon, presents us these rituals with painstaking –and ultimately frightening- accuracy. It is important since Mormonism provides the backbone of the story.

The story is basically based on two historical events. One is the murders by the Lafferty brothers, Ron and Dan, who killed their brother Allen’s wife and child in order to purify them. The victim, Brenda Lafferty, was thought to support Ron’s wife in her decision to leave him when he insisted upon marrying multiple women. Mormonism’s ties to violence are notorious, mostly connected to the so-called blood doctrine. Here’s wiki’s neat summary:

In Mormonism, blood atonement is the controversial concept that there are certain sins to which the atonement of Jesus does not apply, and that before a Mormon who has committed these sins can achieve the highest degree of salvation, he or she must personally atone for the sin by “hav[ing] their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins”. Blood atonement was to be voluntary by the sinner, but was contemplated as being mandatory in a theoretical theocracy (see Theodemocracy) planned for the Utah Territory; it was to be carried out with love and compassion for the sinner, not out of vengeance.

In 2003, Jon Kracauer published a non-fictional account of the Lafferty story, Under the Banners of Heaven, which included a fascinating account of the aforementioned violent history and spawned indignation and changes in certain rituals. The book is also one of the pre-texts of Evenson’s tense coil of a horror novel. The actual incident that spawned the novel, according to the author, is William Hooper Young’s murder of Anna Pulitzer. The great thing is that the New York Times has digitalized a huge part of their archives. As the protagonist digs through the articles, we have the opportunity to do the same. This is from the September 20, 1902 article:

Capt. Titus, Chief of the Detective Bureau, announced at 10:30 o’clock last night that Mrs. Anna Pulitzer was murdered by William Hooper Young, a grandson of Brigham Young, the famous Mormon leader. The murder, said the chief detective, was committed in the apartment of Young’s father, at 103 West Fifty-eighth Street.

The Open Curtain takes a troubled teenager, Rudd Theurer, from a Mormon community, who digs up the case of William Hooper Young for a school project and at the same time discovers he has a half brother, Lael. From this situation Evenson spins a tale of violence, religion, deceit and madness. Rudd comes from a troubled family although we are never filled in as to what constitutes that trouble. His dead father towers over the first half of the book, as he is the one who connects all the strands of the story. The plot ingredients here would make for a fat, long, complicated novel, psychological in a convoluted way. And this is just the beginning. The novel becomes more and more complex as it progresses at a prodigious speed. It starts with memory of a murder and progresses to actual murder, as the events unravel. Murder, he wrote? Make no mistake, this is not a mystery: there are no surprises for the reader, who soon gathers how the novel is going to end. The Open Curtain is a terrifying novel, precisely because we know what is going to happen.

One of the central tropes of this novel is doubt. Doubting the evidence of yr own eyes, doubting God, yourself. Names become pratfalls: Lael, a male name often assigned to girls, meaning “belonging to God”, is often mispronounced as Lyle, the main difference being the first syllable that changes from being pronounced lay to being pronounced lie. Things like thus abound, most significantly the main character, Rudd, whose name derives from the Old English meaning “ruddy-skinned”, in other words: red-skinned. This provides a link to one of the most frequently cited instances of Blood Atonement, the 1887 Mountain Meadows Massacre, undertaken by a group of Mormons disguised as “redskins”, i.e. Native Americans. Instrumental in that slaughter was John D. Lee, whose manifesto is frequently cited by Rudd, who finds that his father had added copious annotations to it. This is just a mild hint of the complexities in The Open Curtain.

Mainly, however, it is about spiritual awakening, religious experience, a concern throughout the book. “God”, as one of the characters pronounces, “has drawn a curtain between myself and heaven and there is no parting it.” This is straight in the middle, ironically, since this novel is about breaking open boundaries, ripping open curtains, having madness fuck your old tired separations. In a way this novel is about strong religious experience, but the further open the curtains are, the darker the room becomes, until the concluding third of the novel, a masterpiece of describing a darkness within a soul or a mind. This novel is about the power of religion, even in those who do not think themselves religious. Religious upbringing or knowledge of intimate religious ideology can be enough to propel your forward on a path into the night. There are no farmhouses near that path and no possibility to rest once one embarks upon it. The dread the reader feels upon watching the characters hurtle down that path stems from Evenson’s mastery in drawing characters and setting situations and moods. Except for the teacher a character I felt slipped from his control, everybody is fleshed out and real to the extent necessary. So are the moods. There is humor, banter, as well as dread, irritation and fear, in the necessary doses. Because, above all, it is an accomplishment in that it does not waste a word. It is first and foremost a thriller and it succeeds within its own genre, a rare feat for literary forays into genre.

It is a superbly well crafted thriller, which is not weighed down by pretension. It has a serious side to it as well, showing what can happen if the violent elements in our culture suddenly surface and create a huge swirling vortex of madness. I will close with a remark from Evenson’s afterword:

A few years after the Lafferty murders, the Mormon temple endowment ceremony was changed in significant ways. The most significant changes to my mind involved the deletion of the “penalties,” a portion of the ceremony in which each temple participant mimed out stylized ways of being killed if they were to reveal temple secrets. Many temple-going Mormons saw this as a positive step: I tend rather to see it as a further repression of Mormonism’s relation to violence. Changing the ceremony hasn’t changed Mormonism’s underlying violence; it has only hidden it.

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Zufälle

Liza schreibt

Bei den Verwüstungen, die mehrere hundert Schülerinnen und Schüler am vergangenen Mittwoch in der Berliner Humboldt-Universität anrichteten, habe es sich, wie die „SchülerInnen-Initiative ‚Bildungsblockaden einreißen!’“ mitteilen ließ, „nicht um gezielte Taten“ gehandelt, „sondern um die Folge einer über lange Zeit aufgestauten Wut“. Das Bemerkenswerte an dieser Rechtfertigung ist die Selbstverständlichkeit, mit der der – nur scheinbaren – Wahllosigkeit der Angriffe auch noch grundlegendes Verständnis gezollt wird. Immerhin hatte sich die „aufgestaute Wut“ ja als regelrechte Raserei entpuppt, deren Besinnungslosigkeit die Masse erst zum Mob machte, der dann tatsächlich nicht mehr bewusst handelte, sondern sich gleichsam intuitiv austobte. Und genau diese Intuition bestimmte das gemeinschaftliche Handeln, das sich selbst Zweck war, sowie die Ziele und das Ausmaß der Zerstörung.

Deshalb ist es eben kein Zufall, dass die Ausstellung „Verraten und verkauft“ schwer demoliert wurde (Foto). Es ist kein Zufall, dass Porträts von Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftlern – darunter das Bild einer von den Nazis ermordeten Mathematikerin – zertrümmert und Bücher aus dem Fenster geworfen wurden, ganz in der Nähe jenes Platzes, auf dem die Nationalsozialisten am 10. Mai 1933 die Bücherverbrennung ins Werk gesetzt hatten. Und es ist kein Zufall, dass „Scheiß Israel!“ gerufen wurde. Dass die Schooligans ihre zerstörerischen Aktivitäten auch noch vielstimmig mit „Anticapitalista“-Rufen untermalten und ihnen so das ideologische Gerüst gaben, fügt sich dabei perfekt ein: Wer seine Ressentiments – und um nichts anderes handelt es sich – ausgerechnet gegen eine Ausstellung über jüdische Unternehmen zur Zeit des Nationalsozialismus richtet, zeigt, wo er die Schuldigen, vulgo: „die Kapitalisten“, verortet und was er ihnen an den Hals wünscht.

und hat ausnahmsweise völlig Recht.