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The Brooklyn Follies
Paul Auster

Picador, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2006.
$14, 306 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0-312-42623-1.

Reviewed by Frédéric Dumas

The Brooklyn Follies is a book about a book that gets written within a story that reflects the real life that is supposed to be reflected in life stories that one suspects may—or may not—turn out to be (not so) fictitious after all: Auster’s novel is an Auster novel.

It all starts in 2000, with a most laconic “I was looking for a quiet place to die.” The protagonist is Nathan Glass, a sixtyish-year-old ex-life insurance salesman who, having been treated for lung cancer, decides to retire to Brooklyn. He easily recovers his bearings in the childhood neighborhoods he left when he was three. There, he hits upon the idea of writing some of the funny episodes of his life, merely as a way of instilling some degree of significance into what he believes might be his last days. He entitles his book in the making The Book of Human Folly and claims its real hero is actually his nephew, a highly gifted graduate school dropout going through a serious existential crisis. Nathan and Tom lost sight of each other for over six years before meeting by chance in Brooklyn where Tom is working in a rare book store. Tom’s unstable sister, Aurora, has disappeared; one day Lucy, her nine-year-old daughter, arrives at Tom’s out of the blue. She refuses to talk and does not disclose her mother’s whereabouts.  Aurora is an ex-singer, an ex-drug addict and an ex-porn actress; she happens to be locked up in the apartment she shares with David, her Christian fundamentalist husband. Nathan asks a former colleague of his to locate them; he eventually confronts David in North Carolina and takes Aurora away to Brooklyn.

A Boston Globe reviewer has aptly noted that “Lucy is a daughter of sin and struggle, like Pearl in The Scarlet Letter.” True to himself, Auster does not shy away from daring, comical metatextual games: not only does Aurora find herself imprisoned on Hawthorne Street in Winston-Salem on account of her husband’s sanctimonious sect, but her brother’s employer gets involved in a con game aiming at selling a forged manuscript of… The Scarlet Letter! The shady employer ends up falling victim to an ex-lover’s revenge; he dies of a heart attack and bequeaths half of his possessions to Tom. At that moment Auster’s novel seems to sail calmly towards a Horatio Alger-like happy end: thanks to his benefactor Tom becomes rich and finds a wife (or, rather, Tom finds himself chosen by a strong-headed woman), while Lucy is reunited with her mother. Nathan himself builds up a loving relationship and, in the very last pages, even embraces the virtues of corporate America as he decides to found his own company. Bios Unlimited would be dedicated to writing biographies, “books about the forgotten ones, to rescue the stories and facts and documents before they disappeared—and shape them into a continuous narrative, the narrative of a life” [303].

Such a seemingly conventional literary pattern is rooted in a menacing political and historical context; Tom and Nathan witness George W. Bush’s rise to power against a background of religious and sexual fanaticism. Obscurantism looms large in Auster’s America, which is about to get first-hand experience of the apocalypse heralded by fundamentalists of all denominations. Their naïveté notwithstanding, Nathan’s literary endeavors express the urgency of salvaging the memory of a multitude of individuals unwittingly standing on the brink of annihilation. The end of the story shows Nathan emerging safely from what he thought was a heart attack, and to what amounts to a symbolic rebirth; the irony is that he gets out of hospital

on the morning of September 11, 2001—just forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Just two hours after that, the smoke of three thousand incinerated bodies would drift over toward Brooklyn and come down pouring down on us in a white cloud of ashes and death. [306]

Burnt bodies and burnt books share the same fate and no one may be spared the fallout. The ending of the novel points to the inadequacy of conventional narratives to convey such a frightening reality. The narrator’s entrepreneurial spirit is of a humanistic nature for it aims at comforting the living after the death of a loved one; according to Nathan, doing so will alleviate the sense of doom that oppresses humanity: “I would resurrect that person in words”; writing could prove to be “something […] that would outlive us all” [304]. Such optimism culminates in the concluding aphorism of the penultimate chapter: “One should never underestimate the power of books” [304]. In the light of the subsequent disaster, however, this clichéd celebration of writing as a challenge to death and oblivion turns out to be an ironic display of hubris.
The Brooklyn Follies is a masterfully built-up edifice which, as one fully realizes in the very last paragraph, composes a narrative counterpart of the Twin Towers. As historical landmarks, the latter may be seen as the epitome of contemporary American architectural follies—profane, flamboyant cathedrals dedicated to the senseless worship of Mammon. Since Nathan’s narrative ends as the towers collapse, the fate of the two structures appears to be inextricably linked; the narrator’s textual constructions and projects are follies too—doomed, self-indulgent creations, whose destruction probably heralds a new era.

Auster’s tower metaphor runs through his body of works. Squeeze Play, written in 1978 and published pseudonymously, revealed a New York Private detective surrounded with reproductions of Brueghel’s Tower of Babel. Among other things, the overwhelming presence of the identical paintings made up a mythical cityscape that fashioned a mise en abyme of Manhattan, while providing an apt illustration of the vanity of artistic masterpieces—be they architectural or textual. September 11 confers additional relevance to Auster’s concerns, which relentlessly explore the notions of historicity, fiction and autobiography. For, as a fictional “account of every blunder” [5], The Book of Human Folly has a lot in common with Hand to Mouth: a Chronicle of Early Failures, Auster’s autobiographical piece published in 1997. 

For all its apocalyptic concerns, The Brooklyn Follies is not at all a dark novel; it proves quite entertaining and sometimes even reads like a thriller. The tone is usually good-natured and the break-up of the narrative into short units often bearing playful titles make Nathan’s Brooklyn follies a light highbrow equivalent of the theatrical revue the term “follies” also signifies.


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