Paul Auster makes little distinction between fictional and real life stories. His literary world is a scrapbook in which anyone's biography can be pastedby Emran Mian / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster (Faber, £16.99)
I don’t think there is any contemporary writer who gets as much fun out of naming his characters as Paul Auster. The three main characters in his new novel are called Wood, Glass (nephew and uncle—resembling respectively the two sides of the family) and Brightman (real name: Dunkel, meaning dark). But the naming isn’t only for fun.
Nathan Glass is the narrator of the book and the compiler of the Follies. He moves to Brooklyn “looking for a quiet place to die” after a career in insurance. The Follies are a collection of notes and anecdotes that he keeps in boxes on his desk. An example of one of Nathan’s own follies is an evening spent trying to retrieve his daughter’s electric shaver after she drops it in the only toilet in the house shortly before a dinner party.
He bumps into his nephew, Tom Wood, working in Harry Brightman’s antiquarian bookstore. Tom’s mother—Nathan’s sister—is dead, and uncle and nephew haven’t seen each other in years. After they’ve caught up, Tom also tells his uncle about his sister, Aurora, known as Rory, who left town to marry the bass guitarist of a band she was singing in. Tom prayed that this man “whose name also happened to be Tom, wasn’t as stupid as he looked.”
Auster just lets the name coincidence hang. Yet we know that Auster cares about naming and so what are we supposed to conclude? Was Rory in love with her brother? He’d just been kind to her, taking her in after she’d had a set of horrific experiences working in modelling and then the porn industry. Was she looking for an echo of him, an echo that she could take away with her because her brother himself wouldn’t go? Or did the coincidence force her to decide, with added agony, that this second Tom was worth leaving her brother for? Auster doesn’t favour one conclusion over another but, through the act of naming creates an aperture for the reader to frame these thoughts, to think harder about the sister and her decision to leave.
It may seem odd to focus on this one act of naming but then this is a book of miniatures. There are not only the Follies filed on Nathan’s desk but the events of the narrative. It is like a scrapbook of Nathan’s retirement. A scrapbook is a way of recording and reflecting on experiences that may otherwise fade. A good scrapbook is more than charming, it’s a map of significance, an atlas of that person’s engagement with the world. And this is a very good scrapbook indeed.
Though Nathan starts off his retirement intending to die quietly, he quickly begins to live more keenly than he ever has before. He flirts with the waitress in the local café; he strikes up a conversation with the beautiful young woman his nephew has been falling in love with from afar; in time, this new-found loquacity and self-confidence enables him to rescue his niece, Rory, from a further husband, a member of a cult and, before that, to charm and foster Rory’s nine-year-old daughter, Lucy, who arrives in Brooklyn alone, mute, an escapee from the cult.
Just as with Auster’s acts of naming, some of Nathan’s stories are pure follies, others are stratagems. As stories can be made compelling simply through being well told and having the right formal qualities, they can also be used instrumentally; they’re the most powerful mode of deception. Harry Brightman uses them in exactly this way. Harry has been in prison for forging paintings. When Tom, who wrote a graduate thesis on utopias, reveals his vision of running a country hotel, the two other men are hooked by this story. Harry plans to raise the money to buy the hotel by fooling a rich collector with another story—a forged manuscript.
The book ends with Nathan planning to establish a company that would publish biographies of “people we pass on the street,” people who leave “no monuments or lasting achievements,” only “a few objects, a few documents, and a smattering of impressions made on other people.” Nathan doesn’t pretend that these books will be bestsellers. He envisages that they will be printed in small editions, paid for by the deceased’s “biography insurance.” Of course this isn’t such a far-fetched idea. Blogs and other internet forums already showcase many million smatterings of impressions. Reality television is centred on people we pass on the street, just as its “everyday” antecedents such as You’ve Been Framed or That’s Life were. At any funeral or wedding or retirement party, the guests will take the trouble to recall the few achievements of the subject. What lifts Auster’s own work out of this strata of daily storytelling is the intelligence that animates it and the scale of his characters. Brightman’s frauds are outrageous—and interesting because they are so. Nathan and Tom, uncle and nephew, have a rare intellectual and conversational brio. And therein lies the problem with Nathan’s idea of democratising biography: all lives are equally valuable, but all lives are not equally interesting.