This is my review of The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster.
“The Brooklyn Follies” reminds me what a skilful wordsmith Paul Auster is: he can capture startling insights, create intriguing characters and describe a beautiful spring day with memorable originality.
Page after page is a pleasure to read until some unconvincing note trips the reader up.
This is the gently rambling tale of the sixty-year old Nathan, at a loose end after surviving a cancer scare, who decides to pass the time compiling “The Book of Human Folly”, a collection of every “blunder, ……. embarrassment , every idiocy, every foible and inane act” of his own and others’ lives. This is an opportunity for Auster both to exercise his fertile imagination, and to regale us with the lists of facts that he likes to record.
I enjoyed the first part of the book in which Nathan, revelling in his rediscovery of the diverse street life of Brooklyn, renews contact with Tom, the brilliant young nephew who has lost his way in life, and gets to know his flamboyant bookshop employer Harry who is not all that he seems, and who in due course reveals a risky plot to make himself rich. I liked their “deep”, but humorous philosophical discussions, in one chapter written like a play.
With the arrival of Nathan’s great-niece Lucy, pretending to be mute, I felt the plot begin to get ragged. Some opportunities for drama are missed, plotlines are resolved too quickly, or become frankly implausible, and I agree with reviewers who think Auster goes in for far too much “telling” rather than “showing”. It’s also just occurred to me that he may not be very good at portraying convincing female characters. I have come to the conclusion that he is not very interested in structuring a plot, creating suspense or working towards a grand denouement – he just loves playing with words and using them to create interesting situations or explore ideas as the fancy takes him, so that the parts are greater than the whole.
I appreciated his swipes at Bush Junior and manipulative American preachers. I was not so keen on the frequent lapses into a corny, wisecracking tone, perhaps meant to convey Nathan’s New York background.
This seems an intentionally lighthearted book, a kind of homage to Brooklyn, in which the follies of the characters rival the contents of Nathan’s unfinished book, but Auster can never totally dispense with the dark undercurrents of reflection on the meaning of life.