15 November 2009
First quarter – to The Sperm-bank surprise
How bothered am I about this middle class, middle-aged male American? This is a novel set in 2000, narrated by its main character, so we’re not necessarily going to trust or respect anything he says. Male American writers – Updike, Ford, DeLillo, the heirs of Bellow and Roth – are confident enough to take it for granted that the workings of the middle-aged male psyche are going to be of interest. I can’t think of any British writers who assume the same thing, and I’m not always convinced by the Americans. I’m certainly not at all sure about this one.
Nathan Glass, Auster’s non-hero – anti-hero would be too strong a phrase – sees himself as a cynic. The ‘Follies’ are to be the swansong of what he thinks of as his last months: his marriage is over, he’s had a big row with his beloved daughter, he’s got cancer. So he moves to Brooklyn, where he spent his childhood, and starts writing about the stupidities of his life. And, who knows, he might even expand it to cover the follies of humanity from the beginning of time…. He thinks he doesn’t need anybody any more, but the novel so far is proving him wrong. At the end of this section, when he finds himself facing a night alone after one of the key encounters he’s had (tell you later), he consoles himself with whiskey and wine, a crafty wank, and a chapter of the ‘Follies’ in which he tells an anecdote about how his own stupid rage makes him deliberately smash a toilet. Not a happy man.
The thread that runs through these chapters is family. The toilet story is told in the context of a family Thanksgiving when his daughter was 17 and dropped her electric razor down the pan. Surprisingly, our man remembers this event as one that confirms his love for her; what reminds him of it is the grovelling letter he’s just written to try to bring about a reconciliation…. And before all this he’s met Tom, his long-lost nephew, last seen well on the way to academic stardom but now 30 pounds overweight and working as a bookseller’s assistant after miserable months as a cab-driver. Over the next few days and weeks, once he’s established that he is no longer Uncle Nathan (and Tom is no longer Dr Thumb), these men from different generations realise that they are one another’s only friends…. But the chapter I’ve just finished ends with Nathan telling Tom not to feel sorry for him: he wants to feel sorry for Tom.
Tom tells him stories, so it’s become a self-consciously layered narrative. Here we have Nathan telling us about Tom, who tells Nathan about Harry, his boss, who has told Tom about his stupid life. (Harry is the bookseller who crashed out of a moderately successful art business and into jail when he got greedy and agreed to let a protégé paint forgeries. Obviously, we wonder how much of that story is to be believed.) Nathan is later properly introduced to Harry, who he’s met occasionally in the bookshop, and he seems to confirm Tom’s story about him. So, nothing that’s happened to Nathan so far is improving his cynical outlook. The book’s title, after these first few chapters, isn’t referring only to Nathan’s own follies.
The Sperm-bank surprise, the chapter I’ve just finished, is another of Tom’s stories – and it’s about another family member. It isn’t a pretty story: in it Tom discovers, in a typically grotesque, Brooklyn Follies-type way, that his sister – the one who has always gone her own way and has run off to be a single mother on her own – is a model in girlie mags. He manages to track her down, and she’s not ashamed, even works in porn movies. But… she later gets gang-raped by the film crew. The last time that Tom sees her – she’s disappeared without trace since, with her daughter – she was looking rather prim and was about to marry a born-again Christian. Oh dear: more folly for our man’s book.
In Nathan’s world – and, for all I know, in Auster’s as well – men are idiots. We’ve had the serious stuff of wrong choices made and lives ruined; there’s also routine crapness, often focused on the penis and its ways. Nathan has an almost obsessive crush on a married waitress at a local restaurant, but a 20-dollar tip he leaves and the masturbation session we hear about – with her as its central fantasy figure – is as far as that one can go. Tom’s story about his sister is told in the context of him masturbating with a girlie mag kindly supplied by the sperm-bank where he and his friends have gone for a bit of a laugh and a few extra dollars. (Reproduction without family obligations – geddit?) The jokey conversation he has with Harry lurches around to their names: if Nathan was Richard they could be Tom, Dick and Harry – which gives Harry the excuse to think of more acceptable terms than ‘dick’. And, I suppose, it lets Nathan – or Auster – remind us that these are universal types, ordinary Joes. Everyjoe.
Nathan does not relate this with any glee: as he tells it, he knows it’s thin stuff. We wonder if anything will happen to make him change his mind, but it’s not looking good: I notice a chapter coming up soon is called On the stupidity of men.
Almost half-way – to A knock on the door
If when I started reading this novel I was expecting a realistic take on how one man comes to terms with his own mortality and the end of dreams… I was wrong. If a 59-year-old insurance salesman really retired to Brooklyn in 2000, a) nothing would happen to him and b) he wouldn’t start writing a book about the foolish things he’d done all his life. In these chapters the authorial confidence I mentioned at the start of this diary is not in evidence: Auster seems to feel it necessary to make stuff happen to keep us interested. Nathan has only met four or five people in total, but Auster has made all of them and their stories weird or unusual enough to keep fidgety readers turning the page. It’s Harry the book dealer who’s made me realise this, although his isn’t the only story that has erupted into exaggerated life. I’ll get back to him.
Nathan is no more a retired insurance salesman than I am. And I’m not. He’s a sophisticated dealer in stories, and the real deal between Auster and his readers – the one I didn’t get at first – is that we’ll accept this whopper because if we do we’ll be taken on a more interesting ride. Ok. But for me it’s like crime fiction, a genre I don’t get on with: the little voice telling me that this is not how it really happens gets in the way of any suspension of disbelief.
But I’ll shut up about me. What’s happened to Nathan? What’s happened is that in this book whatever starts off as a story nearly always become real pretty soon. This starts with the story about Harry: within hours (I think) Nathan is face to face with him, and the story is made flesh. Later Tom tells him about his crush on the Beautiful Perfect Mother, or BPM, who drops her children at the bus stop every morning near where Tom lives. Nathan makes Tom take him to see this marvel and yes, she seems as good as Tom said. But Nathan the interferer has to go and check. Soon he’s introducing himself and his nephew, he’s making guesses about her which he’s proud to tell us are mostly right, he’s buying a necklace from her because she makes jewellery….
Later it’s Tom’s own niece who is made flesh after what Nathan has heard about the wayward sister and her young daughter. The girl, now aged about nine, has got his address from her mother – who is still married to Mr Evangelical – and simply turns up. To add spice, Auster has made her trademark a self-punishing habit of smacking her own head and not speaking for a set number of days. Yeh, sure: it’s no accident in a book about life stories that someone turns up who can’t, or won’t, say a word about her own.
And there’s another incident, with its inception during the chapter called On the stupidity of men. Nathan, who had ostensibly bought the necklace for his daughter as an early birthday gift and peace offering combined, gives it to the waitress we already know about. She refuses to take it, but is persuaded by his talk about how he’s an old man, old enough to be her father, only wants to make her look nicer than she already does…. We see through this, obviously – and so does her husband. When she accidentally goes home wearing the necklace he comes looking for Nathan, comes close to smashing him in the face and threatens to kill him. (She’s called in sick, probably because he’s beaten her up.) And guess what? She’d earlier told Nathan about her husband – ‘Boom!’ and what would happen if he found out about the necklace. Another story come to life.
As for Harry: his thread of the novel is sounding more and more like a caper movie, and that’s what started me thinking about crime stories and the suspension of disbelief. His forger friend (ex-boyfriend, in fact – I forgot to mention Harry is bisexual) is back on the scene and has proposed a new scam. Harry tells the story in two sittings. All we hear at first is something about a business deal that is going to make them a load of money. It seems little more than a ploy to make Tom feel better – he hates everything and wants to somehow escape – and his plans sound like the castles in the air of the three no-hopers in Of Mice and Men. But it seems Harry means it. He tells Nathan alone that the forger friend knows someone who can forge old manuscripts, and…. Well, never mind the details. Nathan is convinced that the ex-boyfriend is seeking revenge: he was in jail a lot longer than Harry and Nathan thinks he’s setting Harry up. My problem is that in this universe, both scenarios are as unlikely as one another and whichever turns out to be true, well, it’s only some author moving characters around and making us guess.
And now we’ve got the elective mute great-niece, who has agreed to be farmed out to Tom’s other sister, the one he doesn’t like and hardly ever sees. Next scene: the drive to Vermont and more stuff happening. (I’m guessing.)
About three-quarters of the way through
I’m usually bad at guessing – maybe that’s why I don’t like crime fiction – but I wasn’t wrong about stuff happening: more in this quarter of the novel than in the whole of the first half. And early on in the chapters I’m talking about, around the half-way point in the novel, it’s as though both Nathan and Auster have decided to put on hats called All About Fiction. Before the drive north comes to an abrupt end (tell you later), it becomes an interlude in Book-land. Tom hasn’t read Nathan’s Book of Human Folly – a title as portentous as chapter titles in this novel like On the stupidity of men – but he tells his uncle he’s obviously become a writer despite his being nearly 60.
This leads to Tom giving a fairly long disquisition – there isn’t a better word to describe it – on his favourite literary figures: Poe and Whitman in particular and everybody else, from both sides of the Atlantic, in general. He lists what seems like dozens of great authors who died young, including Kafka, Tom’s 20th Century fave. He tells of how, in Kafka’s final months of life, he spent all his literary energy on writing a series of stories for a little girl he‘d met by chance, to reconcile her to the disappearance of a doll. Is this an echo of how he and Nathan have put their own lives on hold for a girl? Or is it about the power of literature to define our humanity? Both, I suppose, and an extraordinary interlude in a novel that is about to turn into a high-class caper.
(The last time I read a novel in which GLOP – Great Literature Of the Past – played such an important role was Old School by Tobias Woolf. But that’s a novel overtly about literature narrated by a man who, we discover at the end, is a writer of literary fiction. A bit like Auster, then, and not a bit like an insurance salesman, even this one. It feels like Auster getting in a lot of special pleading for the power of stories… and it feels corny.)
At this point it becomes one of the narrator’s habits to refer to big things that are about to happen. Their decision to turn off the freeway on a whim will change all their lives, their choice of this particular rest stop will lead to the chain of events that… etc. It’s such a blatantly writerly thing to do it makes you think Auster is still signalling he’s got his Fiction hat on – and for us to accept a series of chance events that move things on far more than the imperatives of the characters’ motivations. We get Plot, and I started to be reminded of, say, TC Boyle or Carl Hiassen. I like these writers, but after 50 or 60 pages I hadn’t expected to meet a cousin of theirs.
First, Lucy sabotages the trip by filling the petrol tank with bottles and bottles of coke. They’ll be stuck for a while, so they find rooms in a family hotel that’s never been opened because the wife died just before. It turns out to be the Hotel Experience – not literally, but as near as you could ever hope to find – the imaginary retreat described by Harry in a much earlier chapter. It’s another story made real, apparently. It seems they really could achieve their dream: the owner would love to sell, and they’ll have the money if Harry’s scam works. And Tom, frankly and unhappily celibate for a long time, meets the owner’s big daughter, a fourth-grade teacher as clever as he is and keen to spend their last night in the hotel in Tom’s bed. Then comes the phone call…
… from Rufus, a protégé of Harry’s who works in the bookstore and is as genuine as the ex-boyfriend isn’t. Harry’s dead. Rufus has conveniently listened in on an ugly conversation: the scam was a double-cross, and the ex has turned up with the supposed buyer to threaten Harry with the law if he doesn’t let them come and collect all his stock of rare books the following day. Auster has to persuade us, with talk of Harry’s furred-up arteries and his hysterical over-reaction to their overblown threats, that he would chase after them and die of a heart attack (or stroke? Does it matter?) in the arms of the BPM, who just happens to be passing. She knows Harry: she used to work in the bookstore: just the kind of in-your-face coincidence Auster is happy to pull in the second half of the novel.
The car’s now fixed – good job the garage-man looked at it, because the brakes were about to fail and probably kill them: another happy outcome (how many is that? Three? Four?) of Lucy’s desperate act. They get in and drive to Brooklyn, get Rufus to confirm the story, and Nathan decides to look in the top drawer of Harry’s desk to see if there’s anything important there. Nathan, narrating this hokum, comes up with a line like ‘For once in my life I got lucky….’ At this point I started to wonder. Are we supposed to accept the ever more outlandish assaults on credibility? Or are alarm bells supposed to be ringing? What Nathan finds is a will that leaves everything to Tom and Rufus. Nathan tells them (Rufus isn’t interested, although they’ll make sure he gets his share) and then phones Harry’s conniving ex. As he tells this weasel about Harry’s death, and warns him off trying to take any of Harry’s stuff, he sounds like some tough guy from the movies – as Nathan himself acknowledges. As I’ve said before, he’s no more an insurance salesman than I am – and I wondered whether Auster is trying out bits of other genres for size.
Finally… along comes Tom’s one-night stand. And she tells him a story about how she and Tom will settle down together and live happily ever after. Tom doesn’t think so, but she’s pretty determined and we know what happens when people tell stories in this universe. Except… everyone is telling everyone else in the summer of 2000 that Al Gore is going to be elected. Honey Chowder, the woman with the impossible name crashing in on Tom’s life, has already established her credentials with a joke about Bush that everybody agrees confirms her as Tom‘s intellectual equal, at least.
Is any of this supposed to be true? Is the clue in chapter 1, when our man tells us he is going to write a book about human folly? And isn’t that exactly what this novel is? I’m wondering if Auster is doing what Ian McEwan does in Atonement (published the same year as this one): Nathan is really languishing in his lonely apartment, writing about things he wishes would happen: any implausibilities aren’t the author’s fault, but his pesky narrator’s. ‘This is a novel set in 2000, narrated by its main character, so we’re not necessarily going to trust or respect anything he says.’ That was the second sentence I wrote about this novel, and I’m beginning to think I got it right. Maybe in this novel Gore will win.
If I have got it right I’m going to very pleased with myself, obviously – but the last time I tried to predict the outcome of a metafictional novel (Ford Madox Ford‘s The Good Soldier) I got it completely wrong, suspecting the narrator of murder. Authors like to wrong-foot us occasionally, but they usually stop short of pushing us over a cliff.
Final quarter – to the end
Boo. Boo, boo and boo. Instead of a vertiginous fall over the precipice, we get a nice stroll along the clifftops. (This in spite of the 9/11 twist that is so crass I almost felt embarrassed as I read it.) When I first started this novel, as Auster began to tick off favourite American tropes like the importance of family, intimations of mortality and definitions of success, I wondered about another: surely, I thought, we weren’t going to get the redemption of a character who appears to have given up hope. As things start to go right, in the section I wrote about last time, I wanted it to be just wishful thinking: I wanted it to be more interesting. But no. Here, tripping along, comes all the redemption a boy could ever want. What I wanted was to be sick.
What happens? After a lot of dull details about how Nathan gets an ex-colleague to track her down, we finally get to meet Aurora, Tom’s difficult sister. She’s in a mess, but by the time the novel ends she’s beginning to find a new kind of happiness in a gay relationship with – you’ll never guess – the BPM. I didn’t see that one coming – but after all, why would I? Tom’s sorted, shedding some of his fat and happily – not stormily – married to Honey. And there’s a child on the way. Lucy the great-niece? Giving her magically reappearing mother a hard time for sending her away – which is as it should be. Rachel the estranged daughter? Reconciled with her dad, no longer worried about her husband, and about to give birth to the first grandchild. And Nathan himself? Shacked up in the perfect relationship – i.e. not marriage – with the BPM’s mother. You couldn’t make it up.
A couple more things to mention. Firstly Aurora, the ex-porn star, tells a story straight from a porn magazine about the creepy head of the church her husband insists they all join. Remember what I said about the penis early on? It gets a starring role here – and you should see the size of it. Ah, I thought, Auster’s going to do something interesting here. Wrong. And in the last chapter Nathan dies. Ha ha, fooled you: he doesn’t die, but before we realise this we think he’s doing a Sunset Boulevard or American Beauty on us. He isn’t – but his disquieting stay in the hospital shakes him up. He realises that he is nobody – just as everybody else is nobody. How to preserve something, how to leave a mark?
He – or Auster – decides he’s going to roll all the tropes of this novel into a business plan. He’s going to create a company to turn the power of books into an everlasting memorial of a dead family member: biographies written to order. As he leaves the hospital – his heart attack wasn’t a heart-attack after all – he’s happy. You’re somebody if you get a book written about you. And… that’s when the 9/11 moment raises its ugly head. Think you’re somebody? Think you’ll live forever? Forget it, bud. Auster wants us to realise he’s too tough a cookie to be comfortable with all those warm, runny feelings we’ve been having, and the smell of 3000 incinerated dead says so. I don’t have a problem if Auster wants his memento mori moment – but if life’s cheap, it’s not as cheap as that little trick.