Friday, March 31, 2006

The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster

In my recent semi-stupor, I did manage to finish one book: Paul Auster's latest novel, The Brooklyn Follies. Continuing in the vein of much of his recent work, Auster populates this novel with many mini-stories, from minor characters' back-stories to self-contained, colorful anecdotes told by one character to another, many hinting at larger stories or seemingly crying out to be told in full. But Auster doesn't satisfy the desire he builds up in the reader for stories to be "finished". Actually, he comes closer in The Brooklyn Follies to resolving, so to speak, the central story, but any number of other stories are left unresolved.

This tendency was even more pronounced in his previous novel, Oracle Night. Auster frustrates the readerly desire for some measure of resolution. I felt this frustration (a common enough response to the novel), but well remembered the compulsion to read. Some time ago I read one of those reviews that managed to encapsulate my own unarticulated thoughts on Auster. This was Steve Mitchelmore's review of Oracle Night. For me, the key passage in the review is this:
I don't want to summarise the plot here as it is characteristically involved and would also detract from the essential element of Auster's novels. The essential thing is something impossible to convey outside of the narrative itself: the evocation of possibility. At each step in the story - when Orr enters the stationery store to discover the blue notebook, when he returns to his writing den, when he begins to write the story in the blue notebook as if compelled by an occult power, and when, in the story within the story, the character makes a life-changing decision - there is a thrilling, uncanny sense of freedom. I mean, for the reader. A freedom in infinite possibility; innumerable futures present themselves. I have not experienced this so acutely with any other writer.
"The evocation of possibility": this is exactly what is so compelling about Auster. With any novel, there is the theoretical truth that "anything is possible", but Auster's fiction seems to embody this idea. At any turn, anything seems possible in the narrative--including the dashing of readerly expectations, even those built up by the ongoing narrative itself. In his recent fiction, the last three novels, say (these two and The Book of Illusion), Auster has also been exploring the possibilities of storytelling as a human endeavor. Each of these books is filled, as mentioned, with many smaller stories. The compulsion to read is not that compulsion one feels in plot-heavy novels, though it is a narrative compulsion. The freedom to be open to anything that may come and to allow for, as a reader, the non-resolution, the non-satisfaction of any given narrative thread.

Later in his review, Mitchelmore writes "When you pick up a novel you become a reader, not a consumer." I think when I was beginning to read, to read literature, I didn't really approach novels as a reader. I surely meant to, I thought I was, but I was young and impatient. I would consume the novels I acquired, checking each one off of some imaginary list in my head. Ok, I would say to myself, I've read that. My dissatisfaction, not necessarily with any given novel or novels, but with my own reading experiences, my own attentiveness, has spurred me to try to be a better reader, to read. (It remains an open question how well I've accomplished this. And I am reminded here of William H. Gass in his wonderful introduction to The Recognitions: "'At last I understand Kafka' is a foolish and conceited remark.") Auster's style lends itself to the reader consuming his books; they are indeed "supremely readable", in Mitchelmore's words. In The Brooklyn Follies, Auster's language is piled high with cliché--his narrator is someone in whom the excessive use of cliché seems natural and appropriate. It's almost a bit much. Yet I read on. Once again, as in Oracle Night, the narrator, having gone to Brooklyn "looking for a quiet place to die", effectively returns to life, re-embraces life, in part through the telling of stories. I think the novel emphasizes this through the many other stories it tells, the narrator involving himself in the ongoing stories of the other characters. I don't want to give away the ending, but I found it surprisingly moving.

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