There is something nasty about me. Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies

Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies Faber & Faber (2006; 20051)

This is the best Paul Auster novel I’ve read in a while. He’s on his most engaging form when he tells a gripping story with characters drawn with sympathy and insight, and that’s what he does for the most part (more on that later) in The Brooklyn Follies.

As the title suggests, the setting is his usual multicultural home ground in New York City. He specialises in characters who are damaged in some way, or with a flawed perception of themselves and others, and having to solve problems they are ill-equipped to deal with on their own. The foregrounded voice of our narrator, a retired life insurance salesman called Nathan, provides plenty of evidence of these features. He admits he was a bad husband to his wife (serial affairs – but then she did the same – and little effort to sustain the marriage) and bad father to his daughter Rachel, now grown up and with marital problems of her own.

After commuting daily throughout his working life from the suburbs into his Manhattan office, he’s now divorced, recovering from cancer, and looking to start a new life in Brooklyn, where he’d lived and been happy as a child. He upsets Rachel, who’d suggested he needed a ‘project’ to set him back on course. He bluntly rejected that advice and makes nasty remarks in relating this conversation about the platitudes with which she expresses herself:

Yes, I suppose there is something nasty about me at times.

But he can also be charming and empathetic, and wins her round, eventually. There’s always a hint, though, that he manipulates people with an edge of cynicism. I suppose that was one of his strengths as a life insurance salesman.

The plot is too complicated to summarise here. It centres upon his dropout nephew Tom, also lost in his own way in the metropolis. He’d ended up as a sales clerk in a second-hand bookshop run by a man who turns out to have a dubious and criminal past. He involves Tom, and in turn Nathan, in a convoluted scam that twists and turns in unexpected and unsettling ways that keep the reader invested in the fates of the main characters.

The interest is deepened by the role played by Lucy, Nathan’s nine-year-old niece. She’s smart, and has a winningly literal way of interpreting of words and language, and also the way people around her behave. When she enters the lives of Tom and Nathan, she has the effect, with her fascinating combination of naivete and no-nonsense insight, of causing them to reassess their situations and make things better.

I could see her as a grown woman developing into someone like Flora Post in Cold Comfort Farm. She has a similar resolving impact on the chaotic lives of those she comes into contact with, but without the prissiness.

That similarity also brings out one of the stronger features of this very readable novel: despite the twisting, plot-driven narrative, there’s always a whiff of humour and playfulness in the telling of this story.

On the down side, there are some of the rather more annoying aspects of Paul Auster’s approach to storytelling: the characters tend at times to become caricatures or types. The individuality and humanity so successfully built up and portrayed for the bulk of the time are undermined by these moments.

These traits didn’t ultimately spoil my enjoyment, though, of this stimulating and skilfully crafted, highly entertaining novel. And isn’t that one of the main reasons we read fiction? To be entertained, stimulated, maybe challenged and unsettled a little?

The only two novels posted on here (I read most of Auster’s earlier fiction pre-blog) are:

Mr Vertigo  – link HERE

Invisible – link HERE

 

Boogie-toed prankster: Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo

Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo. Faber and Faber, 2006. First published 1994

I took this novel with me on a long journey recently. I nearly gave up after 30 pages, because the style and subject-matter were so implausible and grating. I had no other reading matter to hand, so persevered. Although the later parts of the novel showed sporadic signs of improvement, I was still left unimpressed by the end.

Paul Auster Mr Vertigo cover The central character is the whimsically named orphan Walter Rawley, just nine years old at the start of the narrative, and a wise-cracking street-smart hustler in St Louis in the 1920s. He’s taken under the wing of Master Yehudi, a theatrically flamboyant Brooklyn-Hungarian Jewish showman, and another unrealistic figure in a novel in which none of the characters bears any resemblance to a flesh-and-blood human.

Yehudi sees potential in this scruffy kid – he says he’ll teach him to fly. So the first third or so of the novel describes the gruelling ‘training’ process to which he subjects Walt. Not surprisingly, he does learn to levitate, and then to perform aerial acrobatics, developing his skills under his enigmatic master’s tutelage. Yehudi himself seems to possess preternatural powers, either satanic or shamanic (is that a word?)

Their plan is to take Walt’s act on the road. He’s to perform in country fairs in backwoods mid-America. Disaster strikes early on, and their plans change. As Walt becomes famous, playing ever larger venues, another catastrophe alters the direction of his life, and the plot veers off in even more implausible directions.

I’ve nothing against magic in fiction. Barbara Comyns employs levitation as a central feature in The Vet’s Daughter (link to my post HERE), but her idiosyncratic approach creates her own kind of surreal suburban gothic that works more successfully than Paul Auster’s novel because it has an air of almost childlike naivety that counterpoints the weirder stuff.

The tangy vernacular style Auster deploys in Walt’s dialogue is intended I think to endear him to the reader; he’s a sort of potty-mouthed Huck Finn, wiser than his years in one sense, but childlike and vulnerable in others. But this doesn’t convince me. He is often callous and cruel (although much of this behaviour, like his casual racism, is a product of his background and era). Unlike my response to Comyns’ heroine, I didn’t really care what happened to him, because he never truly became a fully rounded character.

Here’s a fairly typical random sample of Walt’s narrative voice (for we learn near the end that it is indeed supposed to be Walt himself who’s writing this book), just after he’d arrived at Yehudi’s remote country shack early in the novel:

I was a city boy who had grown up with jazz in his blood, a street kid with his eye on the main chance, and I loved the hurly-burly of crowds, the screech of trolley cars and the throb of neon, the stink of bootleg whiskey trickling in the gutters. I was a boogie-toed prankster, a midget scatman with a quick tongue and a hundred angles, and there I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, living under a sky that brought only weather – nearly all of it bad.

Walt is just too sassy and cynical to ring true. He’s only nine at this point, remember, yet he comes across like a Raymond Chandler PI. I concede that the convention is that this is the voice of Walt 68 years later, writing his own life story, so he’s projecting his mature sensibility into that of himself as a kid. Auster has always been fond of this kind of postmodern playfulness, but did it so much more interestingly in, say, the excellent New York Trilogy (1987).

I read most of his novels pre-blog, and have to say that the quality was decidedly patchy. He never again matched the quality of that trilogy. I enjoyed the first two films based on or scripted by him, however: ‘Smoke’ and ‘Blue in the Face’ (both 1995).

I daresay the Artful Dodger could be described as a cockney forerunner of Walt, but to my mind Dickens is far more skilful in conveying the faults, motivation, inner vulnerability and charm of his character than Auster is with Walt.

Another more successful literary depiction of magic and the supernatural is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. In my post about it I cited Robert McCrum’s description of it in his ‘Hundred Best Novels’ series of articles. He emphasised how it’s much more than a charming fantasy: it’s about a repressed, disregarded woman’s quest for personal freedom and for meaning in her life – without being beholden to any man, religion or social class or institution. (Link to my post HERE).

 

 

 

 

 

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Sally Rooney Normal People. Faber and Faber hardback, 2018

This is going to be controversial.

Two young people are finding their feet in post-crash Ireland as they leave sixth form for university and beyond. Published when she was just 27, Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People has had a sensational success. Costa Winner, Waterstones book of the something – year? Month? I know when I bought a copy for Mrs TD they had it stacked high everywhere, and the staff at checkout were all wearing Normal People badges. At first I thought it was an off-colour statement about their view of their customers.

When she’d finished it Mrs TD insisted I read it to compare notes. I’m afraid I was less enthusiastic than she was, and certainly less than most of the gushing reviews in the media.

Sally Rooney Normal People coverIt’s been hailed as a zeitgeist novel, capturing the ‘collective precariousness’ (Guardian) of our times – not just personal but economic and political. I can’t say that’s what I took from the novel. And Rooney is said to have got into the heads of her two love-lorn protagonists, Connell and Marianne as they learn to come to terms with their sexual and emotional hangups.

That same Guardian piece by Sian Cain added the rider that these two are ‘over-educated, neurotic, and slightly too self-aware’ – Connell sees himself early on as politically astute and feels poised to engage in intelligent, sophisticated discussions about the Greek crisis at smart dinner parties when he leaves home. But, Cain concludes, Rooney avoids the pitfalls of ‘hysterical realism’ by showing, for example, how sincerely engrossed Connell becomes in his reading of Jane Austen. She insists we’re less concerned with the overblown context and focus on whether these two insecure adolescents will manage to find happiness together as they do their damnedest to break up.

I never became that invested in their fate, I’m afraid. I found them rather irritating – a sort of Roddy Doyle version of The Inbetweeners (both of which, I think, do what they do in a less ambitious way, but more successfully). Maybe because I taught that age group for so long. It was like reading an account of a normal day at work.

The dialogue is brilliantly handled, as others have said – but to what end? Sure, this is a sensitive and deftly done examination of maturing sensibilities, learning to realise that love is complicated and often painful, and sex is more than recreation.

There’s a lot of graphic sex, angst and teen slang and syntax – Yeah, he says. No – is one of Connell’s habitual contradictory responses to questions (Rooney dispenses with punctuation of direct speech, for some reason). I suppose he’s so shy and messed up he can’t commit to even the simplest of prompts, let alone negotiate owning up to his laddish mates that he’s having sex with a girl thought to be a weirdo, and who harbours masochistic tendencies as a consequence of her abusive upbringing.

I know this response sounds a bit harsh, and I did find the emerging horrors of the cruel treatment Marianne endured from childhood at the hands of her brutal father and brother almost unbearably moving. Normal People does give an unusually frank and (so far as I can tell) honest and accurate portrayal of young love’s traumas, mistakes and betrayals.

But I still prefer Jane Austen’s approach in Emma.

Full of grace- John McGahern, Amongst Women

John McGahern (1934-2006), Amongst Women. Faber and Faber paperback. First published 1990, when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; it won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus literary award in 1991

Michael Moran, the protagonist of John McGahern’s fine novel Amongst Women, is not an endearing character – on the contrary, he’s a bully and a tyrant in his own household and community. To his three daughters, two sons and second wife, Rose, he’s an emotionally stunted, self-pitying husk of a man. Yet McGahern is able to make us do what all the best novels do, and that is to see and understand this unlovable, tragic figure, and appreciate why his family for the most part love him with such unlikely devotion.

There’s very little plot; instead we get, in just under 190 pages, an epic, unshowy but brilliantly realised portrait of Moran’s character, and an insight into why he’s so bitter, angry and disappointed. This is apparent from the opening paragraph:

As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children and houses of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.

This opening takes place chronologically near the end of the novel’s action. What follows is a sequence of vivid flashbacks which cumulatively explain the dynamics of this family drama. First Moran’s daughters instigate a revival of Monaghan Day, the saint’s festival in the local town of Mohill (in Co. Leitrim), when he entertained with whiskey and acrid nostalgia his former subordinate, McQuaid, from their ‘column’ in the guerrilla column that fought in the bitter war of independence in Ireland in the 1920s. The girls hope that this will snap their father out of his morbid depression (‘Who cares?’ has become his increasingly frequent complaint as he’s aged). Again McGahern’s unobtrusive, scalpel-sharp prose illustrates the import of this:

McGahern Amongst Women coverThey clung so tenaciously to the idea [of Monaghan Day] that Rose felt she couldn’t stand in their way. Moran was not to be told. They wanted it to come as a sudden surprise – jolt. Against all reason they felt it could turn his slow decline around like a Lourdes’ miracle. Forgotten was the tearful nail-biting exercise Monaghan Day had always been for the whole house; with distance it had become large, heroic, blood-mystical, something from which the impossible could be snatched.

As their father’s life nears its end the daughters grow closer to him and each other:

Apart, they could be breathtakingly sharp on the others’ shortcomings but together their individual selves gathered into something very close to a single presence.

Despite his Lear-like patriarchal tyranny, the girls (more than the two boys) are drawn irresistibly back into the father’s sphere of complicated influence:

Within the house the outside world was shut out. There was only Moran, their beloved father; within his shadow and the walls of his house they felt that they would never die; and each time they came to Great Meadow they grew again into the wholeness of being the unique and separate Morans.

What slowly becomes apparent is that Moran’s problem arises from that common inability of the soldier to adapt himself to life after the war. As a guerrilla commander Moran felt he received the respect and devotion he deserved. When the war ended he was irreparably disappointed; on the one occasion he speaks of his wartime experiences to his family he complains:

“What did we get for it? A country, if you’d believe them. Some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen. More than half my own family work in England. What was it all for? The whole thing was a cod.”

He was unable to rise through the ranks and make a career in the army after the Truce because of his irascible, intransigent nature, his truculent incapacity for ‘getting on with people’. In a sense, then, the novel is an allegory of the state of Ireland; Moran’s imperious rule in his own house can be likened to the way his country fared after the terrible divisions of the struggle against England followed by the Civil War. His deep Catholic faith mirrors that of his country; his insistence on the family gathering each night to recite the Rosary together is a scene frequently depicted in the novel as symbolic of this patriarchal, spiritual hold. The novel’s title is taken from the Ave Maria prayer of that Rosary: Hail Mary, full of grace…Blessed art thou amongst women. It’s also amongst the women of his household that Moran holds court; he proves less able to rule his sons.

I’ve said little about the two sons, Luke and Michael, both of whom (unlike their sisters) rebel against their father – Luke more steadfastly than the softer Michael – and it’s sadly apparent that despite their desire to break free of his moody tyranny, they share many of his petulant, self-justifying, misogynistic characteristics. A constant theme in Irish literature from the turn of the 20C has been that struggle to break free of what Joyce called that ‘priest-ridden’ country. Exile and silence is the life Luke (like Stephen Dedalus) chooses over being an acolyte of his baleful father(land).

This is a fine novel, one that I found painfully haunting and enriching.