Friday, January 13, 2012

Reading group: The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Warning: plot spoiler. In order to report our discussion, I've had to reveal the ending of this book.

Doug suggested this book, a departure from Paul Auster's usual more high-wire postmodern storytelling mode. It concerns narrator Nathan Glass who, after a divorce and in remission from lung cancer, returns to his birthplace Brooklyn, he says 'to die', and his nephew Tom whom he unexpectedly finds there working in a second-hand bookshop, dropped out from a brilliantly promising academic career and also in retreat from life. However, the two soon find themselves embroiled together in the lives of colourful others - among them the eccentric bookshop owner Harry Brightman with his dubious past, and the nine-year-old daughter of Tom's lost sister, who turns up on his doorstep out of the blue, strangely mute. Before they know it, Nathan and Tom are engaged on quests to save others from various fates, and en route to their own personal redemption.

Doug said he really liked the wry, urbane narrative voice of Nathan who, while purporting to be curmudgeonly, is in fact touchingly humane and generous. He did, however, feel that the second half of the book was less satisfying with its plot twists, or rather its sudden changes of plot - one story thread being dropped for another - and that here it rather fell apart. Trevor and Ann agreed with him on this latter point, and Trevor said he thought the ending fizzled out.

I said, But don't all the threads come together in the end? and they agreed they did, but still seemed unsatisfied by the way they diverged along the way. I said that Auster was making the point that all stories are contingent to other stories and each story (and each life) is as important as another - this structure, postmodern after all in spite of the seeming greater conventionality, was the author's conscious way of making this point, rather than a failure in storytelling. As for the ending: Nathan relates that, with people saved and all the threads apparently tied up, and newly happy himself in a relationship, he puts his new partner on the subway on her way to work 'only forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.' Surely that clinches the point, and also makes a point about the precariousness of happiness, and the fact that you therefore have to grab it while you can.

They seemed to feel they couldn't argue with this, but they were still unsatisfied by the book. John suggested that maybe Auster had been commissioned to write a 9/11 book, as most prominent American writers probably had, and that that explained what he suggested was a tacked-on 9/11 ending. Others however now said that the ending had in fact been signalled, mainly with references to dates and the political background of the time, 'the right-wing takeover of America' and the election of Bush. I said I thought the book was a conscious and deliberate reminder of the innocence and optimism of the pre-9/11 world and its contrast with our fearful and suspicious post-9/11 world, and above all a reminder of what we had lost in terms of our humanity and generosity towards others. Ann said that what made the book a 9/11 book was indeed the fact that it was about tolerance, the tolerance that characterises Nathan and Tom with their acceptance of everyone and their foibles, and the melting-pot setting of Brooklyn.

Clare and I agreed at this juncture that this sense of generosity and acceptance was the thing we really liked about the book, and new member Chris felt the same. But Trevor now said he didn't buy it. There was an inconsistency, he said: right at the start Nathan admits to being a curmudgeonly old sod, and it simply doesn't fit with the way he turns out to be so generous and humane. I said that that was one of the book's jokes - right at the start Nathan is being an unreliable narrator, indeed he is making fun of himself, and the humour of the book was another thing I really liked about it. Chris had already commented appreciatively on the verbal humour - he particularly liked Harry's instruction 'Keep your nose job out' - and Doug nodded in agreement. However, Trevor was unconvinced, and Jenny now said that though she had liked the book she hadn't found it funny.

Mark, who had been quiet so far, now spoke up. He said that he hadn't appreciated the humour, either. He found a joke of Tom's  -  Tom calls greasy cheeseburgers 'cheesy greaseburgers', if I recall correctly - simply puerile, rather than, as I do, amusing and heart-lifting evidence of Tom's ability to move from gloomy academically-couched existential angst to simple life-affirming humour. In fact, Mark, said, he hadn't liked the book at all. He said he had to admit that this was largely because as an admirer of Auster's previous style, he was disappointed by the change, but also he thought it sentimental. He didn't, as most of us did, find the book touching. He didn't think the nine-year-old niece's mutism credible - though he also announced that he hadn't found the book worth finishing, so he would have missed the explanation provided at the end. He said he strongly agreed with John's suggestion that this book had been written cynically to commission as a 9/11 book and had failed.

At this things got heated, with everyone talking over everyone else, and Doug and I found it quite hilarious that Mark, a fatherly primary school teacher with young children of his own, was sitting there being such a curmudgeon, and in effect doing a pretty good impression of Nathan.

This whole discussion was altogether far more unruly than my account has rendered it, and when at the end someone asked new member Chris what he had thought of the group, he said, in a phrase Tom and Nathan would have appreciated: 'It's like a honky-tonk lagoon!'

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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