Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Leave it to Paul Auster to pull a fast one on his readers. When one thinks of Auster multi-layered and intertwined stories with a touch of the surreal come to mind. Meta-fiction, stories within stories, stories about stories, however you want to describe it Auster is usually anything but straightforward.

But Auster’s latest novel, The Brooklyn Follies, leaves most of that behind. Not all of it, however, as the main character is still a writer (at least in an amateur sense), the book is still about the power of stories, and there is a twist at the end aimed at forcing you to rethink what you just read. But even with these Austerian touches the book is really rather simple. It is about finding happiness in community; in the family and friends that surround you with all their faults and frailties.

The central character and narrator is Nathan Glass a retired and recently divorced insurance salesman who moves to Brooklyn looking for “a quiet place to die”. Glass has been diagnosed with lung cancer and the chemotherapy, his ugly divorce, and an estrangement with his daughter leaves him a dark mood. When Nathan beings a project entitled The Book of Human Folly – described as “An account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible, and every inane act I had committed during my long and checkered career as a man.” – the reader thinks Auster is off on one of his traditional novels where unexpected chance events change people’s lives forever and where the story Auster is telling and the story the main character is writing/telling become intertwined and blurred. But the central focus of Follies never really shifts in that direction. Instead it concentrates on how Nathan goes from stoical despair to a busy and fulfilling life centered in his, and Auster’s, beloved Brooklyn.

This comes about, as is typical of Auster, by chance. Nathan runs into his nephew Tom Wood in a local bookstore. The once promising academic is now a lowly book clerk, a step up from his previous job of taxi driver. Soon nephew and uncle are eating lunch together and waxing philosophical about everything from the meaning of life to Edgar Allen Poe. Nathan’s interaction with Wood brings in a host of additional characters: Harry Brightman, Wood’s boss with a complicated past; Lucy, Wood’s niece who mysteriously shows up and refuses to talk; Aurora, Lucy’s ex-porn star mother who is trapped in a marriage with a religious fanatic; “The Beautiful Perfect Mother,” a gorgeous neighborhood women with whom tom is infatuated; not too mention a number of other side characters. Each character adds a little to the story.

Auster brings all of these complicated threads together in a climax involving a Brightman scheme and Nathan, Tom, and Lucy’s search for a sort of escape from the cares and pressures of this world. It involves a big house in Vermont. The Utopian escape doesn’t quite work out, but in the end both Wood and Glass – is there some Austerian symbolism there? – have found romance and careers of sorts.

If you drop out the silliness about The Book of Folly, and the philosophical and literary theorizing that occasionally occupies conversation between Tom and Nathan, what you have is a rather straightforward story about finding happiness where you are. Nathan thinks he is going to Brooklyn to quietly fade away. Tom dreams of a place where he can escape the stress and ugliness of life. Both end up realizing that they are actually part of a community of friends, lovers, relatives, and neighbors that make their life interesting and meaningful. They come to understand that you can’t find happiness in some Utopian escape but that you must find it in the lives of those around you warts and all.

Not content to leave it at that, however, Auster throws in one last twist. After spending some time in the hospital – nothing life threatening it turns out just an inflamed esophagus – and contemplating his own mortality, Nathan decides to spend what’s rest of his life helping others tell the stories of their loved ones. The novel ends with Nathan feeling rejuvenated and focused on his life as never before. He steps out of the hospital at eight in the morning – September 11, 2001. Instead of ending on an upbeat note melancholy is back with a vengence.

So, what is one to make of all of this? A great deal depends on the kind of reader you are. If you enjoy a close reading in order to untangle all of the threads and catch all of the allusions and references there is plenty to dig into here. If you just want to enjoy well drawn characters and get a glimpse into their lives, Auster will give you that as well. Those looking for political or cultural messages can probably find them too (the text touches on the 2000 election with obvious disdain for George W. Bush). Despite the mostly straightforward nature of the story, there are even post-modern/meta-fiction aspects to the novel.

I think all of this flows out of Auster’s personality and imagination. I found the contemporary political references out of place and the September 11 ending jarring and odd, but of course my politics are diametrically different than Auster’s. It is clear, however, that the author believes that there is power in stories and that some combination of chance or fate brings us into contact with people in ways that determine our lives and the sooner we realize this the more capable we are of finding happiness. It may seem trite, but for Auster life is in the living and the telling.

The Brooklyn Follies may not be a conventional novel but even with its complicated meandering plot, host of quirky characters, and ironic narrative asides it is still a touching, albeit melancholy, story about finding joy in those around you. Life may seem cruel, random, and chaotic but it has its good moments too. These days that is worth thinking about.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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