For three decades Paul Auster has been the most "European" of American authors. His cerebral, detached, tricksome novels have earned him a formidable reputation. Reviews have been respectful, and on occasion adulatory. Yet being admired on campuses and in the pages of the New York Times comes with a cultural cost.
There is an undercurrent of suspicion that for all the "profundity" of Auster's signature themes - the role of chance and coincidence as a metaphysical ordering of the universe - his work is self- regarding. Does he have anything to tell his readers about the way America works now? He may be described as an Existentialist, a disciple of Beckett and an admirer of Kafka, but taxi drivers in the Park Slope district of Brooklyn, where he lives, have not yet begun to bother him for autographs.
The austere Auster has begun to loosen his belt a notch and seek a wider readership. The Brooklyn Follies, his ninth novel, is still an unmistakable product. The old moves are still there: the enigmatic narrator, the insistent role of coincidence, the stories within stories, the hunger for metaphysical meaning, and the playful manipulation of parallels and doubles. But the handsome, cigarillo-puffing Brooklyn mystifier now offers himself to the public as an author of happy-news fiction.
Nathan Glass, Auster's narrator, is a divorced insurance executive who has moved to Brooklyn in the hope of rebuilding his unsteady life. His lung cancer is in remission. Nathan wants to mend relationships, and learn, again, how to serve others. Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow wrote versions of this story 30 years ago, understanding the making of amends as a distinctively Jewish ethical act.
No such claim stands behind Nathan's desire to make things better. In Auster-land things happen. Or don't. There is little emotional tumult or cost in accepting the claim others make upon the narrator. It does not make for a particularly engaging or strenuous moral challenge to the characters in the novel - or the readers of novel.
Nathan has begun a book entitled The Book of Human Folly, in which he collects stories of mishaps and confusions. It is in relationships with his estranged daughter Rachel, and with Tom and Aurora, the two grown-up children of his deceased sister June, that Nathan is given a chance to heal the wrongs of their unhappy lives. He offers sensible advice to the risk-taking bookseller Harry Brightman, and romance to a lively widow, Joyce.
Not all of his benevolent gestures come off. A married waitress loses her job as a consequence of Nathan's over-generous gift of a necklace. But his nephew Tom, a despondent ex-graduate student now driving a taxi, and niece Aurora, rebuilld their lives through renewed ties to Uncle Nathan. Aurora is rescued from a loveless marriage, and her spunky daughter Lucy finds a new home in Brooklyn.
All this unexpected happiness is rendered in a prose of cliché and banality. Auster's gift for vivid metaphor seems to have petered out. The novel ends with Nathan - formerly Nathan the Unwise, and now Nathan the Healer and Healed - leaving hospital after tests confirmed that he had not had a heart attack. It is eight in the morning on the morning of 11 September 2001, and Nathan bustles happily down the street.
He has a new scheme to redeem the dead from obscurity. For the payment of a small fee, everyone will be able to commission a biography of their loved ones. Words will indeed resurrect the dead.
The disaster which was already heading towards the World Trade Center looms. But that terrible event has no meaning, or emotional force, in the multiple stories recounted in The Brooklyn Follies. It is just one of those things which happen in Auster-land.
Eric Homberger's cultural companion to New York is published by Signal BooksReuse content