Reading this book, I saw what he meant. By the time I was on the third or fourth page, Auster was out of my mind and as far as I was concerned the story really was written by its narrator, Nathan Glass, a retired insurance agent. One reason is that compared with most other writers Auster doesn’t have an obvious, easily identifiable style. The writing is so functional, so centred on taking the story forward that the novelist’s methods are invisible.
I’m not talking here about the distinction that’s commonly made between simple, lucid writing (e.g. Vikram Seth) vs writing that draws attention to itself (e.g. Salman Rushdie’s fiction). Even authors who belong to the former category, whose work we think of as narrative-driven, do usually have a distinct style that marks their writing as the work of a particular person (a contemporary example being Kazuo Ishiguro, one of my favourites). But Auster’s writing in The Brooklyn Follies is so completely integrated with his narrator’s personality that one has no trouble in believing that Nathan himself wrote it all.
This is less common than one might think. In most first-person stories narrated by characters who are not professional wordsmiths, the reading process entails a minor suspension of disbelief (though we tend not to dwell on it). There’s an implicit understanding that though the thoughts and experiences are the narrator’s, the story is being ghost-written by an accomplished novelist: he’s clarifying the narrator’s ideas, polishing the language, supplying order and structure. (While reading Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, for instance, narrated by the butler Stevens, we understand that if Stevens were to himself sit down and write the story his prose would not be anywhere near as elegant as Ishiguro’s, nor his writing as organised.)
It’s different when the narrator himself is a writer by profession. Philip Roth’s frequent narrator Nathan Zuckerman is a successful novelist – in fact there’s very little that separates him from Roth – and so the striking prose of books such as American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain doesn’t seem incongruous. One is aware that Zuckerman’s own writing could be this proficient, or close enough.
Auster’s Nathan on the other hand, though an intelligent, well-read man, has never been a writer – until, very late in life, he starts jotting down notes for a book, more for amusement than anything else. And the narrative of The Brooklyn Follies fits what one would expect of such a character. Nathan is self-conscious about the writing process and about his own limitations: he plays around with sentences, comments on his stylistic choices, begins one chapter on an experimental note, deliberately avoids all forms of description in another chapter. He introduces his nephew Tom by flamboyantly (and awkwardly) bestowing the title Hero of this Book on him. And he fumbles for the right words, as in this passage where his car has just stalled:
...the engine coughed forth one of the most peculiar noises in automotive history. I have sat here thinking about that noise for the past 20 minutes, but I still haven’t found the correct words to describe it, the one unforgettable phrase that would do it justice. Raucous chortling? Hiccupping pizzicati? A pandemonium of guffaws? I’m probably not up to the task – or else language is too feeble an instrument to capture what I heard, which resembled something that might have come from the mouth of a choking goose or a drunken chimpanzee.Later, after an unpleasant phone conversation with his ex-wife, he decides to stop referring to her by name, which leads to the use of phrases like “(Name Deleted)” at points in the narrative; this could have been annoying and gimmicky, but it’s true to Nathan’s playfulness and his growing confidence about his role as a storyteller.
Note: I’m not saying that if Nathan Glass existed he actually would have been able to write this very novel, just that we are given that impression – which is one of Auster’s great achievements. He’s a deceptively good writer and a lot of craft must go into the seeming effortlessness of his work.
[Will review The Brooklyn Follies soon]