The Brooklyn follies
I think I like Paul Auster. Why only “I think”? Well, because this is the second novel of his I’m reading and because, on some level, I was a bit disappointed. I really enjoyed “New York trilogy”, it was interesting, fresh and fun. By comparison, “Brooklyn follies” seems tired, overused and a bit flat. In itself – I think it’s a good read, but I also think Mr. Auster is better than this 😀
The plot is conventional, and, especially by the end, it borders the melodramatic. It all starts when Nathan Glass, a 60something former cancer patient who, being recently divorced, decides to leave his suburban home and move to the city. Brooklyn is recommended as a good place to die, apparently. So, when the main character states in the first sentence that his plans for the foreseeable future include a quiet death – you know that’s not how it’s gonna go down, so all that’s left to be done is to wait and see who’ll pull him back in the world. In this case, the picture is gradually filled by an estranged nephew (Tom), his boss (Harry – with a shady past and a passion for both men and women), a neighbourhood soccer mom (the BPM – beautiful perfect mother – I found this a bit lame), a 9 year old little girl who refuses to speak and pops in out of the blue (Lucy, Tom’s niece), her mother (Rory, Tom’s wild sister, who is rescued by Nathan from a bad marriage and house arrest), the BPM’s mother (who will start a relationship with Nathan) and Rachel, Nathan’s daughter. Basically, everyone’s going through personal dramas: Tom was a brilliant student who gave up writing his doctoral thesis and became a cab driver, Rory got pregnant as a teenager and embarked on a career that included music and porn, resurfacing on her brother’s doorstep every one in a while, Rachel’s marriage is shaky after she suspects her husband of having slept with an ex-girlfriend, the BPM’s marriage falls apart when her husband proves to be sleeping around, Harry tries one last swindle and dies of a heart attack.
When I cram all this in a couple of sentences, it feels like I’m talking about the last season of some kind of soap opera, but the way Mr. Auster puts it, you mostly steer clear of that impression. There’s something funny about that – the blurbs on the back cover don’t do him justice because his style (which is half the fun of reading his books) can’t really be advertised in just one phrase, and Nathan’s cynical voice tempers what would otherwise have been a mush-fest. But all the human drama, plus the 2000 elections and the looming prospect of Bush’s presidency (I assume Mr. Auster isn’t a fan 😉 ) is only a backdrop for Redemption. Everyone is given the chance for a new life – to do it right or screw it all up again. But the tab’s empty by the end of the book – an end which comes only a couple of hours before 9/11. I’ve always liked this idea of making a fresh start – in books and movies it’s always possible to mess your life completely and end up better off than you were in the first place. Ain’t that something nice to dream about? 😉
And, somewhat connected to all this redemption talk, there’s Hotel Existence, probably one of the most memorable ideas in the book. Hotel Existence is Harry’s childhood retreat, an imaginary place where he could do whatever he wanted – be it saving WWII orphans at 10 or hosting parties and bringing ladies upstairs at 16. Hotel Existence is just a symbol, a name, for the inner retreat most of us have. Maybe not as complex and conscious as Harry’s fantasy, but just as needed – that’s why Nathan and Tom are so captivated by to the point where they start making plans (on pillars of salt and pillars of sand, just like Coldplay put it 😛 ).
I think it’s a very cinematographic novel, especially since the book provides some really good voice-overs 😀
“With an ordinary car you lose the element of drudgery. The exhaustion, the boredom, the mind numbing sameness of it all. Then, out of nowhere, you suddenly feel a little burst of freedom, a moment or two of genuine, unqualified, bliss. But you have to pay for it. Without the drudgery, no bliss”
“Give me a wily rascal over a pious sap every day of the week. He might not always play by the rules, but he’s got spirit.”
“You grow a little complacent of your so called knowledge of the world, and then, every once in a while, something comes along that jolts you out of your cocoon of superiority that reminds you all over again that you don’t know the first thing about life.”
“For as long as the story goes on, the reality no longer exists.” (I love this, and the little Kafka anectode it was inspired by. I don’t even know if it’s true or not, but the idea of it is so beautiful – a grown man willing to write letters as if coming from a doll in order to comfort a strange girl who’s lost hers.)
“You can talk to God and hope he listens to you but unless your brain is tuned to the twenty-four-hour Schizophrenia Network he isn’t going to talk back.”
Just as I was about to press “Publish” it hit me I didn’t mention the bunch of things which both NY Trilogy and Brooklyn have in common: a writer character (because, something else I forgot, Nathan is working on a couple of very ambitious projects himself: a Book of Folliesin which he records small silly events of everyday life on random pieces of paper and then later, as he lies in a hospital bed, the idea of a company that would publish biographies of the common man, strictly for members of the family or friends.), random coincidences (i.e. Tom and Nathan being neighbours, after not having spoken in years) and a not very strict timeline. All in all, good summer read 😉