Anyone who has followed Paul Auster’s career knows that for every New York Trilogy or Leviathan or The Book of Illusions we have to put up with an Oracle Night or Timbuktu. There is no predictable pattern to whether a new novel will soar or crumble: chance rules all. But that is appropriate for Auster since in his fictional world his characters put themselves at the dictates of happenstance. And that is exactly how The Brooklyn Follies (Faber, 2005) starts: our narrator, newly retired from the insurance industry, newly divorced, newly recovered from cancer, arrives in Brooklyn alone and friendless and looking for nothing more than a place to die. The familiar patterns fall into place and one fears the worst, but then, slowly, one realises that something rather strange and unexpected is happening in this novel, and it could turn into one of his best yet.
Our narrator, Nathan, in among writing what he calls ‘The Book of Folly’ which recounts the silly, thoughtless disasters of normal human life, visits a small local secondhand bookshop, and there encounters his long-lost nephew. Tom, over-weight and directionless, is a college drop-out who worked as a taxi driver and has only just started at the store. Through Tom we meet Harry who owns the bookshop, a flamboyant gay who once ran a prestigious art gallery until he was jailed for fraud. This rootless trio is vividly and attractively drawn, but you feel that the book will stand or fall depending on the contingencies of fate which beset them. And, as in Oracle Night, fate shows up in the form of unpredictable youth, though in this case it is benign rather than malign. One day Lucy, Tom’s nine-year-old niece, turns up alone and unannounced on his doorstep, and because Lucy will not speak they are unable to discover why she is there or what has happened to her mother.
But it is with the arrival of Lucy that we begin to notice the un-Austerish character of this novel. When Nathan and Tom decide, rather unwillingly, that the best person to look after Lucy is a formidable female relative in Vermont, Lucy acts. At a stop along the way she pours Coke into the petrol tank and kills the car, stranding them in a small town where a schoolteacher moves in on Tom. Harry dies when his old partner in crime exacts revenge by involving him in another scam, but Nathan acts decisively to prevent the villains getting away with Harry’s possessions. And Nathan then employs an insurance investigator he used to work with to track down Lucy’s mother, then heads off himself to rescue her from her religious fanatic husband who is holding her a virtual prisoner. In other words, these Auster characters act; they do not wait to see what will happen, but rather take charge of their own lives. By the end of the novel, Tom is happily married, Nathan is in a new relationship, Lucy and her mother are making a new life for themselves. Action has happy results.
The novel ends precisely two hours before the first plane flies into the World Trade Center. This is not a 9/11 novel, but it is nevertheless a novel haunted by that moment when it changed. And one cannot help feeling that when fate can come up with such horrors, then taking control of one’s own life is the best response. This change in the metaphysic of Auster’s work has produced one of his best novels.
First published at Livejournal, 27 February 2006.