Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Book Chat: The Brooklyn Follies

The Brooklyn Follies

Paul Auster writes my favorite contemporary American lit-fic, probably because, unlike say Don DeLillo, he never skimps on the story, which he seems to care about for its own sake and not just as a framework for his ideas. The Brooklyn Follies is filled with incident, invention, and interesting characters, not to mention a couple of mysteries and some genuine (if momentary) thrills. It reminded me a lot of John Irving's early novels (especially The Hotel New Hampshire), but it's shorter and lot less heavy handed.

It is an English Major kind of novel though: there are references to Poe, Thoureau, Melville, Whitman, DeLillo; an important early scene revolves around a discussion of one of the character's senior thesis; the book's idea of paradise is being able to have the time to read all the books you'd want to read, and, oh, yeah, spend time with all the people you care about, too.

Like most of Auster's novels, there are stories within stories and a strong sense of approaching literature as a game to be played or a puzzle to be solved, but it's that addition of "all the people you care about" into the mix that distinguishes The Brooklyn Follies from Auster's last two novels. Those books - The Book of Illusion and Oracle Night - were more focused on the po-mo lit-fic gamesmanship and not so much on the larger world. This is a warmer book, almost a "feel good" book.

It doesn't end as well as it starts, not because Auster refuses to provide a satisfying ending a la DeLillo or takes a stab at ambiguity that feels a little bit too much like a cop out a la the recent Philip Roth novels, but because he tries to wrap everything up a little too neatly. I like that the book wears its politics on its sleeve (although at this date and considering Auster's audience, it isn't exactly an act of courage), but sometimes Auster's relatively schematic left-liberal worldview undermines his abilities as a novelist. Or rather, he's always been weakest (IMO) when it comes to creating characters, and so when filling out his casts he often resorts to stereotypes that will be recognizable to anyone who's kept up with American indie movies during the last 10 years. There's a Jamaican drag queen who's essentially a saint and a Southern Evangelic Christian who's the book's major monster. Structurally, the evil Christians show up at end, and Auster's somewhat condescending take on them wasn't enough to sour me on the book as a whole, but I wasn't as an enthusiastic fan of the book as I had been with fifty pages to go. (Also, IMO, the final paragraph was maybe a little redundant: I saw it coming from so far off that I felt a little let down that he made such a predictable move).

This lack of generosity and sympathy got me thinking about one of the few major American 19th Century Literary types who doesn't get mentioned in the book: my personal favorite, William Dean Howells. One of the things I like about a novel like A Hazard of New Fortunes is that Howells has affection for all of his characters, even if he treats their beliefs and ideologies with a bemused irony. The Brooklyn Follies could use a bit more of that, although, all-in-all, a pretty compelling, entertaining book.

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