Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Brooklyn Follies

The Brooklyn Follies The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m thinking: if Philip Roth is the Bob Dylan of literature, then maybe Paul Auster is Lou Reed. There’s a similar slight age difference, and the fact that both pairs are Jewish, with the older ones much more upfront about it. Then there’s the idea that Roth and Dylan both seemed intent on telling stories that resonated across the country, while Auster and Reed embraced New York City, both, in their way, becoming regional writers who happened to be in the cultural capital.

I haven’t always liked what I’ve read of Auster. I enjoyed Mr. Vertigo, but the New York Trilogy seemed cold and almost mechanical to me. I could say the same of Lou Reed; I love the Velvet Underground stuff, but find his solo work uneven – never because it’s inept but sometimes because it seemed more committed to the experiment than to the result.

I think the late Lou Reed, as much in his interviews as his music, became someone who was the best of his middle work, someone who could stand on his history of experimentation and make himself accessible, someone whose credibility let him talk more nakedly about being human than most people could get away with.

The Brooklyn Follies seems to me a similar sort of statement, and it’s similarly magical. This is a great book. It’s about aging and regret – all the species of folly that fit into the taxonomy our narrator Nathan Glass puts forward – but it’s also deeply human. The structure is deeply sophisticated: Nathan tells us up front that he’s suddenly aware impending death and then he talks of his experiences in Brooklyn as he reconnects with his favorite nephew and an ever-widening cast of characters. In the course of it, he veers from one anecdote to another, compressing time and rendering dialogue indirectly.

The heart of the novel is the “Book of Folly” that Nathan composes. He sets out to record stories of unfulfilled ambition, ironic failure, and undeserved optimism. He shares only a few of those with us, but I’d sum up the bottom line with the old Yiddish maxim, “Man plans. God laughs.” We rarely hear about his writing, but it’s always there, always something that calls to him. And that theme of folly, of people believing they are chosen for good fortune or that they have the capacity to chart the lives they want for themselves, runs throughout.

Without giving away too much, let me say that Nathan and the others collectively trend toward settling down. They want to connect to others. They want to build homes. In the late Lou Reed vein of things, Auster is able to celebrate that allure of domesticity because he gives a consistent sense of Nathan’s (and by extension his own) world weariness. “Let’s all get married and have kids” sounds pollyanna-ish from someone who’s prone to conservative experiences. It’s something else when it comes from someone who finds himself startled to be alive, someone who has discovered conventional values along an unconventional path.

The bottom line is that you’re in the hands of a master with this one. This is a great meditation on aging and on our American moment at the start of the 21st century, and I’ll be looking for more Auster again soon.

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