Paul Auster frustrates my ability to give a simple and straightforward answer as to whether I like his work or not. I'm not even sure I can explain why I'm so unaccustomedly tongue-tied on the matter.
But I find myself in the same predicament after reading "The Brooklyn Follies."
On the one hand, Auster always draws you irresistibly into his fictional worlds with an engaging narrative voice and a compelling premise. This is the case in "The Brooklyn Follies," the story of Nathan Glass, a divorced, embittered, ex-insurance salesman and cancer survivor. What can be more compelling than a man who's given up on life? Who's returned to his old childhood home to die? You figure he's going to find a reason to live and you want to know what that reason will be. It's one of the best hooks in the fiction business.
So off you go, following Auster into this novel of failed academics, runaway daughters, art swindlers, ethereal beauties, eccentric cranks, and earthy, ordinary women whose treasure chests conceal hearts of pure gold for the man lucky enough and wise enough to appreciate them. Along the way, however, you run up against what I always I find sets my teeth on edge about Auster. He's eminently "readable," his voice is engaging, conversational even...I'll hand him that. But he's a "casual" prose stylist, at best; at worst, his prose seems merely sloppy and carelessly thrown across the page like paint slapped on a pig’s ass. There are the long back stories that can start anywhere at any time about practically anyone in the narrative, sending you off on a tangent, and tending, as often as not, to grind the plot down to a halt for interminable lengths of pages. Then there is the admirable, but embarrassingly glaring attempt to shoehorn characters of as many different sexual and racial persuasions as possible into the plot, all described in glowingly noble terms, so we don't forget what a tolerant guy Auster is...though, all-man as he feels compelled to point out as when Nathan assures his girlfriend that he'd "rather lose his right arm than sleep with a man." I mean, really. I'd have to think that sleeping with practically anyone or anything would be preferable, at least in theory, to the prospect of losing one's right arm. In fact, the first thing I'd suspect of anyone who expressed *that* much repulsion over sleeping with a member of the same sex was a powerful albeit deeply suppressed and catastrophically sublimated homosexuality.
Auster wears his political predilections on his sleeve, which would be more annoying if I didn't in large part share them, but his political views are so often inessential to the plot and delivered in such an off-the-cuff-every-sane-person-must-agree-with-me manner that they carry no weight whatsoever as political analysis and would really rankle, I suspect, if you weren't on Auster's political wavelength to begin with. Basically, they are just shout-outs to those who already agree with him, a wink and a nod to another member of the club. But less forgivable than all of the preceding, however, is the unabashed over-sentimentality. Oh god, how thick the treacle drips from some of these pages! It's not just excessive; it's stunningly excessive. It's downright embarrassing in a serious author to so consistently sound so many false emotional notes, so embarrassingly, stunningly, unrealistically excessive is the sentimentality at times that you start to wonder: *Is* Paul Auster a "serious" author?
In the end, I'm always left on the fence about Auster. I always seem to go back to him, though. So I have to figure that when all is said and done I like him more than I don't, that what I consider his negatives are in the last analysis overcome by his positives.
And the biggest positive of all is Auster's ability to hone in on a compelling dilemma archetypal of the human condition. He makes us care about the situation his character faces because it's an important one--one that we all share. That's what he does in "The Brooklyn Follies." In Nathan Glass, he has created an Everyman who is asking the most basic question of all: Why live?
You'd have to be a pretty uncurious sort to walk away before you hear the answer. Auster knows this. And he employs what are his considerable storytelling skills--slapdash prose style and gushing emotions aside--to keep legions of readers, myself among them, turning the pages. And that, of course, is the first and most important prerequisite of any successful popular writer, serious or not.