The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

by Zachary Houle

20 February 2006


Rebuilding the Shattered City of Glass

During the first week of October 2001, the satirical news Web site, The Onion, had a notable front-page headline that now pretty neatly sums up the Sturm und Drang of the immediate post-9/11 era: “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care about Stupid Bullshit Again.” The accompanying faux news story ribbed the fact it then seemed nearly impossible for anyone in the shattered nation of America to really be engaged with “trivial” things like “the Grammy Awards” and “shopping at the Gap” (and, perhaps, even reading The Onion) in the days immediately following the worst-ever terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. This article was arguably one of the markers of the beginning of a yearlong period now known as the Age of the Death of Irony, a time where the latest goings on in La La Land seemed so unimportant just because nobody suddenly knew if or when the world was going to go ka-blooey!

Thankfully, the world hasn’t ended yet—fingers crossed. The first quarter of 2006 is turning out to be a time of relative peace and stability, barring the ongoing unrest in the Middle East and the looming threat of yet another attack—somewhere, maybe—probably by a very ticked off Mother Nature or maybe even a suddenly rifle-toting Dick Cheney, if not those pesky terrorists. It’s also a period that sees acclaimed author Paul Auster offering up, for the most part, a fairly warm and humorous new novel, a not-too-distant cousin to his screenplay for the 1995 Wayne Wang film, Smoke.

cover art

The Brooklyn Follies

Paul Auster

(Henry Holt)

Auster, as many people nose-deep in serious modern literature know, is probably the quintessential writer when it comes to all things New York, even though he writes about his hometown in such a bohemian way that one might be excused for mistaking it for the capital of France. After eight novels that tend to owe as much to chance as they do crushing, grim reality, The Brooklyn Follies sees Auster moving the human relationships of his characters to the front-and-center of his work. The most notable thing one could say about the people who populate Brooklyn is that they seem real and genuine, instead of mere chess pieces whose purpose is for Auster to blather about the tenuous metaphysical threads that hold reality together (see 2003’s Oracle Night).

Like most of Auster’s novels, Brooklyn is narrated by a down-on-his-luck, aging, individually wealthy, male writer. In this case, this would be one Nathan Glass, a name that deliberately evokes Auster’s previous City of Glass (1985). Glass is a humbled ex-life insurance salesman who announces in Brooklyn‘s opening sentence he has come to Brooklyn “looking for a quiet place to die” from lung cancer. (One has to wonder why didn’t he just choose Vermont for its solitude instead of the city that never sleeps, but that’s to digress.) After going into remission, then stumbling upon a number of chance meetings with old relatives and new friends, Glass winds up living again by writing something called “The Book of Human Folly”. This book-within-a-book’s title is also a road sign towards the slightly less-than-serious tone that this novel is about to take on.

This tonality change, it turns out, is a wise choice for Auster; in the past, he has tended to be a writer who simply writes what he knows—too much of what he knows, it can be argued. His father’s death in 1979 left him with enough money to pursue a full-time writing career, and most of Auster’s male protagonists have seemed to mirror the author’s detached intellectual temperament or well-off financial situation. It really seemed as though, by 2002 or so, Auster was feeling destined to write the same New York Trilogy over and over again. The Book of Illusions (2002), as great a weird mystery yarn as it was, merely swapped out The Locked Room‘s (1986) missing author for a missing silent movie star. The aforementioned Oracle Night had a blue notebook that was central to its plot, much like the earlier City of Glass had a crucial red book.

Thankfully, the smug humor peppered throughout Brooklyn marks a bit of a change from Auster’s previous novels, even if the same-old, same-old stock Auster narrator is used. However, some of the humor might also come across a bit corny and heavy-handed at times. There’s a recurring joke early on about Glass and his long-lost nephew Tom Wood sharing similarly weird surnames. (Glass? Wood? Get it?) If one can overlook Auster’s tendency towards the obvious, though, there will be enough touching and funny moments in Brooklyn to bring up the slack, such as the disturbingly hilarious bit in which Wood discovers his sister is posing for porn magazines. (And, yes, try to resist the urge to make a lumbering sexual pun about Soft Wood here, if you wish.)

What’s particularly startling is that all of the characters are struggling to repair themselves in light of some great tragedy in their personal lives: Glass with his cancer in remission, Wood with “the collapse of his most cherished ambitions” to finish an English graduate degree, and an New England inn owner Glass and Wood both eventually meet who is struggling with the loss of his wife. Through these characters and others that Glass and Wood encounter, Auster makes an allusion to New York’s greatest tragedy ever and the art of somehow getting over it.

Brooklyn, in fact, ends its narrative precisely 46 minutes prior to the first plane crash during the long, surreal day that was September 11, 2001. At one point midway through this narrative, somewhere around the summer of 2000, Glass notably thinks to himself: “I feel remarkably happy just to be where I am, sitting in my own body, … breathing air in and out of my lungs, relishing the simple fact that I am alive.” In a way, one has to wonder if Auster now feels the same way, too, in the post-9/11 world, and if Brooklyn is his indulgence for missing out on being in the action at Ground Zero when the planes hit. A mere indulgence it winds up being, though. Not only does the book stop on a dime feeling somewhat unresolved, Glass’s “Book of Human Folly”, so importantly introduced as a plot device at the beginning of Brooklyn, merely fades into the scenery, then more or less vanishes like the Twin Towers from the New York skyline.

Far from his best book, but far from his worst, Brooklyn bares the mark of both a transitional work and an authorial holding pattern. In fact, reading this novel is like watching Auster trying his best to remake his beloved city out of sand castles on Coney Island instead of the shattered fragments of the World Trade Center over in Manhattan. This might make the book seem to be both a little bit ironic and trivial, but maybe that’s not important. Maybe the entire point is that reading The Brooklyn Follies in this day and age is an exercise kind of on par with what shopping at the Gap must have been like on September 12, 2001: just an important, selfish act of doing “stupid bullshit” in a world that’s suddenly gone terribly, terribly wrong.

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