Thursday, November 10, 2005

Review: The Brooklyn Follies

THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES
by Paul Auster
Henry Holt
Publication Date: January 2006

I'm sorry to be reviewing something that isn't available to most outside the publishing community for a couple of months, but I wanted to get my thoughts down before they fade. This is a book I read in one day -- an extremely rare thing, and like the books that make you miss your subway stop, a good indicator of how compelling this novel was for me. I'm a Paul Auster fan, though I started late with THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS and ORACLE NIGHT, and am only now coming to some of his earlier work (I have yet to find the time to sit down with the NEW YORK TRILOGY, though it's high on the list of non-new releases I want to read). He seems to me an eloquent storyteller of the city, with plots that sometimes seem modeled after New York streets; he's unafraid of lots of plot, and he sometimes lets his characters get stuck down a dark alley or around an unexpected corner. He's the kind of "postmodern" writer I like -- intelligently having fun with the freedom to use all genres, all voices, all non-traditional structures in the service of something powerful and pleasurable.

This new novel is actually a lot less dark than his two previous novels, and from what I've gathered than his previous work as well. Maybe he's been spending more time in the sunnier borough of Brooklyn, where he makes his home -- this is a novel of neighbors and neighborhoods, not of anonymity and bleak high rise rooms. The story is narrated by a retired insurance salesman, Nathan Glass, who grew up in Brooklyn and has returned there, half jokingly, to die. Glass is divorced, had cancer but beat it, and is planning to live out his remaining days in comfortable solitude. But an encounter with a long-lost nephew, the nephew's charismatic employer, and the sudden appearance of a child without her mother (another relative) hurtles him back into the world of relationships and dramatic goings-on. The plot is breathtakingly suspenseful, but never dips too deeply into darkness, and with a few exceptions, things turn out much as everyone would like, though not necessarily as you'd expect.

Three of the main characters have the last names of Glass, Wood, and Brightman, which is what started me thinking about comparing this novel to Dickens, with his emblematic last names, though these are much more sleek and contemporary than Fezziwig and Murdstone. This seems to me a Dickensian book in many ways: real moral dilemmas are faced, coincidences and plot twists run amuck, the hero finds himself changed by his fellow men, and the city itself plays a characteristic role. Not to mention the happy ending, which is immensely satisfying in a way that has nothing to do with expectations of harsh realism. (Auster subverts the ending somewhat disturbingly on the very last page, but this coda in no way changes the fact that this is basically a novel about happiness.)

Throughout the book, the characters discuss an idea they come to call the Hotel Existence: a real or imaginary retreat from the problems of the world, where all of the luxuries and interests you can imagine are there in a place of safety and companionship. At one point it is suggested that a Vermont hotel may be the embodiment of the idea, but I think for Auster the real Hotel Existence is Brooklyn itself. All vices and desires are represented there, but the strong fabric of the neighborhoods and the enduring hominess of the architecture, and all of the other indeterminable factors that make the borough "the world's biggest small town," mean that in some ways Brooklyn (at least the Brooklyn these characters live in) is both a safe retreat and a place to become deeply involved and fulfilled.

Incidentally, I tend to feel the same way about Brooklyn. It feels more like a hometown to me than anywhere I've lived since my childhood -- a place of traditions and of wild new possibilities. But even if you don't share the feeling, Auster's latest is definitely worth a read. Don't come looking for his traditional noirishness; just enjoy a grab-you-by-the-collar story full of meaty details and compelling characters that is as satisfying as a fat Dickens novel, with a very contemporary sensibility.