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

 

New York noir: Paul Auster, Invisible

Paul Auster, Invisible (Faber, 2009) I must have bought this hardback edition when it came out in the UK at a time when I was still enthusiastic about Auster’s fiction. Since then, I’ve had disappointing experiences with his work (so much so that I haven’t posted about them here – except for one, noted below). This, however, is one of his better efforts – despite some over-fussy tricksiness that has become rather a cliché in his narrative approach.

The first part, for example, is a first-person narrative in the voice of the protagonist, Adam Walker, a second-year undergrad at Columbia, NYC, and an aspiring poet. It’s 1967, and he meets at a party a fascinating but sinister Franco-German professor of politics called Rudolf Born (that’s another of PA’s not-so-subtle mannerisms: the suggestive names), and his lovely partner, Margot. This being Auster, Adam is angelically handsome (like his sister), Born is terrifyingly clever (and worryingly bigoted and a tad aggressive and sarcastic), while beautiful Margot is a bit of a cipher in the role of sort-of femme fatale.

Born makes Adam an unlikely offer of literary work. The young man, who has reservations about Born’s motives, is naïve and ambitious enough to accept. He has the inevitable and over-signposted affair with Margot (who’s ten years older than him, so even more of a young man’s fantasy figure), and then things go decidedly pear-shaped. Adam’s sense of morality is severely tested.

The second part, as our narrator intrusively points out, is in the second person – a device that doesn’t really work here. Adam has gone to Paris, and the plot with Born and Margot becomes even more noirish. The third part, set thirty years later, has a different (third-person) narrator. Here most of the loose ends of the unlikely plot are tied up. The final part is focused on one of the Parisian characters Adam had met, who has now also become entangled in Born’s schemes.

Invisible is almost a success. It’s quite an exciting (if highly implausible and over-crafted) plot, and there are some genuine, quite shocking surprises and revelations. This managed to hold my attention sufficiently not to give up. I found the foregrounded artifice off-putting. It all became a bit too ‘See how cleverly I deploy the post-modern tropes, while keeping a complex story on course?’

Interesting, then, and entertaining, but not great. And Adam Walker, as his name is perhaps meant to suggest, is just too pedestrian and plodding. Like the demonic Born and most of the women characters, he’s two-dimensional.

Invisible is nevertheless more rewarding than the only other Auster novel I’ve posted on here at TDays: Mr Vertigo.

 

Invisible woman: Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! (Viking, 2021)

Not the most inspiring of titles. Its novelist narrator, who we met in My Name is Lucy Barton (links below to other posts on ES novels), tells us more about the events in that earlier novel. For example, that her hospital stay in New York was for a real – and serious – condition, and her estranged, damaged mother really did visit her. She might also have loved her equally damaged daughter, Lucy. Just couldn’t say or show it. Or act upon it.

Elizabeth Strout Oh William! cover There’s more of that kind of thing in Oh William! Here the slender plot has to do with Lucy’s ex-husband, the hapless William, who was (still is) a serial adulterer. Most of his actions cause Lucy to utter the exclamation in the (silly) title. Usually out of exasperation, sometimes pity (maybe even love).

She exclaims in similar ways about others, including herself. Life exasperates her. The cruel, deprived upbringing she told about in Lucy Barton is alluded to in order to account for her present diffidence, her sense of not belonging in the world, and lack of self worth – even as she nears William’s age, 70. She says several times she feels ‘invisible’. ‘What a strange thing life is.’

Strout is able to pull off these banal expressions as Lucy’s only available means of articulating her profound, turbulent emotions. The narrative is told from her viewpoint, and it’s colloquial and idiomatic like that all the time (she’s very fond – overfond – of ‘is what I mean’ after an attempt to explain something). But that’s not to say it lacks complexity or depth. She’s more George Herbert (without the spirituality) than John Donne.

After her various scrapes with William as he tries to find out the truth of his own troubled past in rural Maine, she feels close to him, even sad they divorced, but validated that they did. More to the point, she learns a bit more about herself and her dislocated sensibility. On almost the final page she repeats ‘Oh William!’, then goes on:

don’t I mean Oh Lucy! Too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.

Other posts here at T Days on ES novels:

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 Amy & Isabelle HERE

Olive Kitteridge HERE

 

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend. Virago paperback, 2019. First published in the US 2018

This is a lovely novel.

I read it in a single day while recuperating from a medical procedure, so didn’t feel up to a demanding read. This is an easy read, but it’s not facile or trite: in fact it’s very profound, and very moving.

Sigrid Nunez The Friend coverThe unnamed narrator closely resembles the author: she’s a writer, university teacher of English and creative writing, and resident of New York City. When a former lover and lifelong friend unexpectedly commits suicide, she inherits his harlequin great Dane. Reluctantly, for she’s a cat person, and dogs aren’t allowed in her apartment building.

The central thread of the narrative is about the grief she and the gentle giant of a dog share for their lost friend. At first the dog is bereft and distant, barely tolerating her. Gradually they find themselves consoling and supporting each other – she’d say they fall in love.

That might not sound too compelling a summary, but believe me, there’s so much more in this novel. The narrator refracts her thoughts and experience through the lens of literature: Virginia Woolf and many other writers on writing, promiscuity (her late friend was a thrice-married womaniser, but charismatic and brilliant, so gets away with most of his dubious philandering), being a flâneur, and life itself. And all of those simultaneously.

Writing, for example, involves ‘self-doubt, shame, self-loathing’, and leads to embarrassment for the author. An epigraph quotes Natalia Ginzburg: ‘You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.’ This novel perhaps disproves that notion.

She often reflects on JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (on which I posted HERE). She adopts an intimate, conversational voice with the reader, aware early on that we’ll be worrying that ‘something bad happens to the dog’. Of course it does: Danes don’t live long. But she spares us the worst, and ends on an idyllic note, spending a happy time at a Long Island beach house with the elderly, ailing dog.

It’s an unusual form of autofiction. She often reflects, metafictionally, on the nature of her narrative, and of ‘fiction as autobiography, autobiography as fiction.’ And she’s not averse to poking fun at this kind of solipsism. A late chapter shifts dimensions and posits an alternative narrative, closer perhaps to ‘reality’, and upsets the living character on whom she’s based the dead friend and dog owner. He thinks she’s been presumptuous in purloining his story and disguising it slightly as fiction.

Maybe he had it coming.

‘It is curious,’ she suggests on this topic, ‘how the act of writing  leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.’

I like that demotic element in her style. She can talk like this while citing authors like Proust, Christa Wolf or Rilke. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace features quite largely. She’s skilful and intelligent enough to make it all cohere and entertain.

This literary allusion never became intrusive or ostentatious. She’s a literature professor, after all. Another American woman writer her fragmentary narrative approach reminds me of is Renata Adler – one of the most interesting I’ve read in recent years (my post on Speedboat is HERE.)