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The spoken word and the written word in Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies

Par Catherine Pesso-Miquel : Professeur - Université Lyon 2
Publié par Clifford Armion le 19/10/2009
This article analyses the construction of voices in Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies, in which the paradoxical relationship between printed signs on a page and phonemes uttered by human bodies is fore-grounded. Auster revels in creating lively dialogues that are carefully inscribed within a particular voice through the use of didascalia, but he also celebrates the physicality and euphony of a narrative voice which navigates between elegiac lyricism and sharp-witted humour. The Brooklyn Follies, like all Auster’s books, is a book about books, but this one is also a book about tales and story-telling, about speech and silence, and the very American tradition of tall tales.

"Books don't talk, do they?"


Paul Auster constructed the plot of The Brooklyn Follies around a mysterious core of silence and absence, the deliberate, painful silence of Lucy's unspoken words, of course, but also the silence of the missing written word, since Lucy conveniently loses her mother's letter during her bus trip. Without this device, there would have been no plot: uncle and nephew would not have taken a trip to Vermont, Aurora's fate would not have been kept secret, and there would have been no story to tell, nothing to puzzle the main characters and keep them "traveling in circles, talking, talking, talking" (Auster 2006, 137). Indeed Lucy's actual appearance in Nathan's story is immediately heralded by a significant adjective: "It was Lucy. A silent, nine-and-a-half-year-old Lucy" (262). However, if the apparent opposition of sound and silence contributes to the building up of suspense, it also forms the basis of the metafictional reflection carried on in the novel, revolving around text and voice, writing and orality. On the surface, it first looks as if The Brooklyn Follies, like many of Paul Auster's previous novels, is a writer's book, a book about books, writing and writers but we soon realise that, as Paul Auster constantly shows us in this novel, silent black signs on a white page are all the more efficient if they keep up a vital correspondence with the materiality of the human voice and the noises, sounds and rhythms of orality.

1. The talking voice

Before Aurora actually enters the story she is an object, not a subject, she is talked about as the victim of circumstances, then she becomes a disembodied voice on an answering machine, sending out a message that seems to change, to become more desperate and urgent every time it is played, "a little more on edge, a little more afraid"; "her words were so deadly, they carried all the impact of a scream" (243). When Aurora does finally tell Nathan the story of her ill-fated marriage, she insists on David Minor's desperate search for a father figure, which sends him "all the way to the top," to "the biggest father of them all," but leaves him dissatisfied, because:

You can talk to your God and hope he listens to you, but unless your brain is tuned to the twenty-four-hour Schizophrenia Network, he isn't going to talk back. Pray all you want, but you won't hear a peep from Dad. You can study his words in the Bible, but the Bible is just a book, and books don't talk, do they? (262)

When she says this Aurora is on the plane with Nathan, engaged in a talk that lasts several hours (250), the butt of which is a husband who is not violent, but offensive in an insidious way, because "his game is talk. Talk, talk, talk. And then more talk" (260-261). Paradoxically, the reader is here deciphering silent, printed words that manage to create the illusion that a voice, Aurora's voice, is audibly speaking, and audibly complaining against too garrulous a character, whose words are persuasively dangerous.

There is in this novel no heterodiegetic narrator's voice; all voices and tales are contained within Nathan Glass's framing voice and narrative, which includes many dialogues, quoted monologues and uttered words transcribed as reported speech. Each character is given a very distinctive way of speaking, and the novel constantly dramatises and stages the "talking". Aurora is given an outspoken, angry rage; her words are energetic, blunt, contemptuous and coldly sarcastic when addressing her husband, whom she leaves "alone with [his] pure thoughts and [his] pure tongue and his silent fucking God" (256). In her husband's house, living in the shadow of the "Temple of the Holy Word," where Reverend Bob has perversely warped and instrumentalised the Gospel according to John [1], Aurora had been reduced to a sullen, reluctant silence. Once liberated by Nathan's arrival, she allows the bottled up words to pour out: the slang words, the cussing, the long-avoided words of truth and reason: "This is it, Mr Holy. The goddamn moment of truth" (256). But Paul Auster takes care to make her voice original, full of zest, and avoids vulgarity or commonplace expressions; in other words he chooses Aurora's words of anger and relief with care, creating the illusion of spontaneous orality through the use of precise, evocative words that correspond to written criteria of euphony and rhetoric, such as alliteration ("all that fundamentalist ranting and raving", 261) or rare, colourful adjectives ("a waitress in some sleazoid diner", 261). Aurora's supposedly careless words are deliberately chosen and put together, into neat, witty one-liners: "Pray all you want, but you won't hear a peep from Dad" (262). But this creation of an illusion of orality is carefully entwined with an oblique intertextual reference, since the crude light that Aurora sheds on the scene in which she tackles Reverend Bob reveals details that are reminiscent of Faulkner's extremely controversial novel, Sanctuary: "I closed my eyes and shoved that big veiny corncob into my mouth", Aurora tells Nathan (268), using a metaphor that would sound unusual if, infamously, it had not been used literally, precisely because in Sanctuary the impotent Popeye uses a corncob to rape the heroine. Thus Auster creates an inextricable labyrinth, weaving together sounds and signs, Aurora's very oralised, impertinent voice and bookish references to William Faulkner, an author who is more famous than read in the USA because he is deemed "difficult".

Aurora's long narrative is structurally the pendant of the spirited "torrent of words" with which Tom "showered" Nathan during the car trip to Vermont: "a veritable flood of stories, jokes, and lectures both pertinent and arcane" (147). In both instances Nathan is an interested recipient; since like Aurora, Tom has to catch up on months of silence, in his case the lonely taxi-driving, the "painful silence" into which he, once "a wickedly funny conversationalist" (25), had then fallen, and his pathetic "silent worship of the B.P.M." (82). Auster sometimes has Nathan summing up Tom's words; sometimes Tom's "rambling, erudite chatter" (151) is quoted directly, but throughout the episode in which Tom goes on "at full verbal tilt" (159), Auster lets us hear a lively, witty, entertaining "voice". When Tom tries to persuade his uncle that writing is his true calling, Nathan uses the technique of free indirect speech, creating a discourse that is both learned, persuasive and scholarly yet which streams fluidly and naturally (148), then he switches to quoted dialogue to treat the lives of great writers as fascinating anecdotes, told in a lively, colloquial and witty way. He thus conjures up a vast fraternity of great writers with bizarre lives cutting across centuries of time: "Milton was blind. Cervantes had one arm. Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in a barroom brawl before he was thirty", and Edgar Poe "died crazy and drunk in a Baltimore gutter" (149), but the accidents of their respective lives have no influence whatsoever on the greatness of their work. As Tom puts it, what we should think of these accidents, which have no purport, is "Nothing. A big fat nothing" (149).

The special dedication of this novel to the orality and aurality of the spoken voice is self-reflexively fore-grounded when Auster chooses to construct one chapter as a scene from a play, in which Harry Brightman has the leading role as he soliloquises about the two versions of the Hotel Existence, one "pure corn and boyish sentimentality" (102), the other pure adolescent porn fantasy. Brightman's description creates an artful mise-en-abyme, a narrative within the narrative, in which Brightman as narrator is just as attentive as Nathan Glass (and Paul Auster) to the physical quality of voices and the materiality and nature of sounds as he gets his audience to hear "the muffled dice bouncing on the green felt, the baccarat dealer whispering in an oily foreign accent", and "the smoky voice" of "the singer in the spotlight" (104), a detail that conjures up both the aural detail of a smoke-altered, throaty voice and the visual detail of a smoke-filled bar. As Nathan remarks, "the truth of the story lies in the details" (157), and many details are aimed at our ears, our sense of hearing.

After all, the BPM's husband is a Foley walker, and his "cool job" (making sound effects for movies) involves being "very exact, very interesting," and "really work[ing] hard at getting things right" (92). Nathan's job as the narrator of the book we are reading is comparable in its difficulty. For instance, Nathan has to describe, verbally, the noise that the coke-fuelled car makes [2], and although he devotes a whole paragraph to the subject he is still not satisfied, as a writer, with the result: "I have sat here thinking about that noise for the past twenty minutes, but I still haven't found [...] the one unforgettable phrase that would do it justice. Raucous chortling? Hiccupping pizzicati? A pandemonium of guffaws?" (159). Nathan's daughter Rachel speaks in nothing but "platitudes", with ready-made, second-hand phrases like "living hell" (2), and her verbal descriptions extend no further than "very nice", which causes Nathan to comment sarcastically on her "usual flair for colorful language" (114). David Minor, that "pious sap" (54), that "self-righteous turd", (287), has for his part no critical sense, no thinking mind, and is only too eager to let Reverend Bob dictate his life to him; so, characteristically, he thinks and talks in clichés, in empty, pompous, tired old phrases. Aurora bitterly mocks him: "That's typical David for you: the dark days of my youth" (285). Unlike Rachel and David, Nathan uses extremely precise and highly evocative language, as do the other characters who act as temporary narrators. When Nathan narrates Brightman's story as told to him by Tom, he uses a playful mixed metaphor, fusing different fairy tales, comparing the painter Alec Smith to a goose: "the goose had taken a swan dive in Mexico, and henceforth there would be no more golden eggs" (43). Ironically, Brightman will imitate Smith's bravura, but will refuse to be used and sponged upon; he describes his last ploy, his "tak[ing] care of his boys" (213), as a "vast swan dive into eternal greatness" (183).

Constantly, the precision and euphonic quality of Nathan's narrative mimics the materiality of the voices he gives an echo to; thus when Nathan quotes a long telephone conversation [3] between himself and Al Junior, he comments on Al's "doleful, disbelieving voice" and adds stage directions to flesh out the body voicing the words he hears: "I imagine shaking his head as the words come out of his mouth" (188). Al Junior's words, colourful and interesting, match the arresting quality of the grain of his voice, as he asks amusing rhetorical questions or makes funny comments ("Coke cans don't have legs, do they? They don't have hands and ingers to flick themselves open with" (187).

Accents also are listened to and analysed; Lucy speaks with a southern accent (143), then she loses it (283), and both Joyce and her daughter Nancy have a Brooklyn accent, delightful to Nathan's ear: Nancy's voice has "the resonant tonality of a born Brooklynite", an "unmistakable accent" which for Nathan is "the most welcoming, most human of all American voices" (86), while Joyce's "earthy, proletarian voice" with its "strong Brooklyn accent" pronounces Victor Mature's name "Victa Machuah, as if the letter r had atrophied to such a degree that it had been expunged from the English alphabet" (275). Interestingly, for a novel entitled The Brooklyn Follies, the book contains very few spotlights on Brooklyn. Nathan describes his growing affection for his neighbourhood, its idiosyncrasies (180), and its myriad languages, that Lucy enjoys aping (227), and pays tribute to the quick sense of repartee of the bagel salesman who offers him a "pumpernixon bagel" [4] instead of the "cinnamon-reagan" Nathan mistakenly asked for (5), but apart from that Brooklyn plays only a minor part; it stays in the background, functioning as a warm, congenial atmosphere rather than a mimetic rendition of a geographic space.

2. Tall tales and mazes of parallel narratives

The special quality of Brightman's voice, "a smooth and resonant baritone", which "undercut[s] the overall foppishness of his manner" (56) is dwelt upon, and later, as Nathan talks to him over the phone (not knowing it is for the last time), the narrative insists once more on the histrionic quality of a character who "booms, sounding like some half-mad nineteenth century actor" (182) and pursues his "full bombastic flight", "blustering forth his enigmatic pronouncements for the pure, self-indulgent pleasure of listening to his own voice" (183). Paul Auster thus creates a parallel between matter and manner, between the far fetched, implausible quality of the tall tale he delivers when inventing Brightman's death, and the "larger than life" qualities of Brightman's character and Brightman's voice.

With Brightman also, Auster has to walk the tightrope of paradox, invent a voice that sounds natural, colloquial and oral and yet that will be enjoyable as inventive, creative writing. Thus when Brightman comments on his own boyish dreams, he uses flat, onomatopoeic language ("I dreamed of becoming a soldier. Ugh. Oh, ugh and double ugh," but immediately after he comes up with a line that sounds like a line of verse, a ringing tetrameter that parodies the themes, rhythms and grammatical structures of English drama and poetry: "What empty dolts we mortals be" (102), which echoes Puck's disgust in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream [5], "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" (III, ii, 115). In other words, the written word that imitates the spoken word is both trying to "act naturally" (as photographers ask their subjects to do), and to function as literature, hence the necessity of navigating between banality and inventiveness, and the necessity for Auster to use, in his dialogues, striking and poetic lines such as the deceptively simple-sounding tetrameter "The big black hole we call the world" (99). It is made up exclusively of monosyllabic words, each word taken separately is extremely simple, belonging to everyday use, and yet their combination creates a euphonic result: an alliteration in B and L, and an arresting spondee ("black hole") slowing down the rhythm in the middle, between the first and the last two iambs, making of the line something half way between a tetrameter and a pentameter.

Exaggeration and lies characterise Brightman's dramatisation of his own life, and before the readers really get to know him, before Tom hears "the whole brutal, asinine story of his misspent life" (36), Nathan uses his knowledge retrospectively to warn us that Brightman had reinvented his past. Thus Auster reverses the order of the postmodernist device of "writing under erasure", since the narrative enjoins us to "forget" what it has not yet told us, i.e. untruthful tall tales of Brightman's past. Brian McHale was inspired by Derrida's crossed-out words in De la grammatologie (Derrida 31) to problematize "writing under erasure", a phrase he adapted to entitle the seventh chapter of Postmodernist Fiction ("Worlds under erasure"). Mc Hale insisted on the fact that an "erased" story continues nevertheless to work on the imagination of the reader, to influence the perception of the characters by the readers: "physically canceled, yet still legible beneath the cancellation, these signs sous rature continue to function in the discourse even while they are excluded from it" (McHale 92). Salman Rushdie was very much aware of the rich narrative possibilities of "parallel stories"; in Midnight's Children the narrator "fibs," "falling victim to the temptation of every autobiographer, to the illusion that since the past exists only in one's memories and the words which strive vainly to encapsulate them, it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred" (Rushdie 1982, 443). In another of Rushdie's novels the narrator celebrates those "impossible stories, stories with No Entry signs on them" which "change our lives, and our minds, as often as the authorized versions" (Rushdie 1999, 199).

John Fowles famously used the device in The French Lieutenant's Woman, where the narrator retracts himself, declaring "the last few pages you have read are not what happened" (Fowles 295), but the acknowledgement comes after the telling of the "fib", which thus stands corrected and "crossed out" as it were. Paul Auster had implicitly used the idea of parallel stories and fibs in In the Country of Last Things, in which Anna Blume violently denies having strangled Ferdinand (Auster 1988, 69), in a narrative which offers no other possible murderer, thus hinting at the narrator's unreliability, but in The Brooklyn Follies Brightman is presented as the perpetual inventor of his own fictionalised past. This is exactly what Hector Mann does in The Book of Illusions, albeit in a much more sombre key. Even when telling the "true version" of his past life twice, Harry Brightman introduces a variation (boasting instead of weeping), which Nathan can detect, because he had listened to "Tom's retelling" of Brightman's "Chicago crimes" and had pretended not to know already when Brightman told confided in him. This moves Nathan to comment on the multiple identities we carry within us: "All men contain several men inside them, and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are" (Auster 2006, 122-123).

Nathan is supposed to be the "writer" of the book we are reading, but he is an important character in this book, and as such gives himself a "voice" too, which is sometimes pure role-playing, as when he imitates the shady gangsters of a hard-boiled private eye story, using their cold, sarcastic, mock polite irony, as in "A very easy thing. It won't take but a minute of your time" before closing in for the kill with ruthless, profane brutality: "Believe it, buster" (215), "I'll fuck you up so bad, you won't want to live anymore" (216). Nathan congratulates himself half-disgustedly on his performance: "I had borne down on him with a viciousness that made me sound like some gravel-voiced hood from an old B-movie" (219). Nathan's commentary dwells on the physical materiality of a cinema hoodlum's voice, but the episode is implicitly intertextual, since the hard-boiled genre was also, and first of all, an American literary genre practised by writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, in which tough, witty dialogues full of irony and half-veiled menace were given a great importance.

3. The power of books

The illusion of orality is not restricted to dialogues, however, and in a beautiful sentence, Nathan very early on captures the paradox and the beauty of writing and reading, two silent activities which nevertheless enjoin the reader to "listen" to a very specific "voice":

I had never lost my interest in books. Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head (13, my italics)

Reading, in this sentence, addresses the ears more than the eyes. Sometimes, indeed, when a writer's words are lyrical, funny, or euphonic enough, the reader can be moved actually to listen to himself or herself reading them aloud, thus completing the movement of circulation between sound and sign, letters and phonemes. How could one resist for instance the amusing cascade of o's, "all those o's filling up the mouth" and begging to be voiced, suggested by the "unfortunate rhyme" of "Poe and Thoreau" (14)?

Thus the literate reader unwittingly links up with ancient oral cultures in which, according to Walter Ong, "the interiorising force of the oral word relate[d] in a special way to the sacral, to the ultimate concerns of existence" (Ong 74); Ong remarks for instance upon the poetry and orality of the text of the Bible, even if the latter word means "the Book" par excellence. Ong reminds us of the fact that written words are only secondary signs, and he quotes Lotman, who calls them "secondary modeling system[s]" relating to orally articulated sounds which themselves refer to something beyond them. The spoken word can be totally detached from the written word, as happens when people speak the same language but use different alphabets, like Serbs and Croats or speakers of Hindi and Urdu. Therefore, as Auster reminds us, readers do listen to an interior "voice". Or, as Ong puts it,

What the reader is seeing on this page are not real words but coded symbols whereby a properly informed being can evoke in his or her consciousness real words, in actual or imagined sound. It is impossible for script to be more than marks on a surface unless it is used by a conscious human being as a cue to sounded words, real or imagined, directly or indirectly. (Ong 74-75)

The movement back to orality can become deeply imbued with affect when an adult bonds with a child by reading a book aloud, as Nathan does for Lucy by lending his voice to Zane Grey's words (Auster 2006, 192). This mysterious intertwining of literacy and orality is one of the factors that turn books into such powerful, mysterious objects, and if Auster's novel is a celebration of tale-telling and orality, of the power of speech, it is also a great panegyric extolling the wonders of the printed word, and of books as lovable and even precious objects.

In The Brooklyn Follies, some characters are anything but bookish, like James Joyce's parents, "who had never heard of James Joyce" when naming their son (92) or like Joyce, who professes to be "a strict nonreader" (276), but most of the other characters, be it Nathan and Tom (13), Harry, or Lucy and Honey (191), are bookworms and booklovers. Ironically, in one of the dialogues, Tom tries to explain to Harry the "tiny exaltations" and "unexpected miracles" (29) of driving a taxi alone at night, "with neon raining down on you from every corner of the sky" and "the bright yellow roundness of the moon" (30). Tom insists on the feeling he had then of "real transcendence", "leaving your body behind you and entering the fullness and thickness of the world" (30), adding: "no book can duplicate those things" (30). The latter sentence is ironical on a first level because the dialogue is captured in print in a book, secondly because the word transcendence implicitly evokes the (written) tradition of American transcendentalist philosophy, and thirdly because the reference to the moon imagery in the mouth of an intellectual character undergoing a kind of social ostracism is a wink at Auster's previous novel, Moon Palace. Thus books return, even when repressed or denied.

The presence of books is thus omnipresent, sometimes in stealthy, spectral form, sometimes in explicit, lengthy descriptions. Harry's bookstore is a "mausoleum" where downstairs one can relish "breathing in the old dusty smells" (27) and browsing in "the jumble and chaos," (57), while the upstairs room with its precious rare books offers "a paradise of tranquillity and order" (57). Harry's book business enables Paul Auster to introduce yet another dimension of the word, that of the handwritten word as opposed to the printed word. Thus Auster, who had accustomed his readers to stories of fictitious author figures writing fictitious books, here treats us to a fascinating journey inside the manuscript of The Scarlet Letter and to a guided tour of Hawthorne's idiosyncrasies and "private tics" (128), because this novel also happens to be a declaration of love to literature in general and to the great tradition of American literature in particular. Tom shudders with indignation because T. W. Higginson dared to "correct", normalise, and invent rhymes for Emily Dickinson's poems before having them printed and published: that "puffed-up ignoramus who called Leaves of Grass an immoral book dared to touch the work of the divine Emily" (149). Books, vectors of human art, culture, and civilization are a favourite target of the fundamentalists and the cult leaders who wish to control thought and destroy autonomy, like Reverend Bob, who orders the banning of "every book in the house except the Bible" (264). In our age and time, books are also threatened by our consumerist "culture", forced as they are to "giv[e] way to women's shoes and handbags" (280). However, in Auster's fictional universe, they do resist.

4. Writer or story-teller?

The Brooklyn Follies is full of metafictional, self-reflexive allusions, which is not a surprise since it contains elements that are characteristic of the Austerian literary universe: a narrator who presents himself as the writer of the book the reader is reading, and a postmodernist effect of mise-en-abyme, or Chinese boxes. Nathan keeps reminding us that he is writing "this book", asking us to "watch for [Nancy] between the lines" (112), a remark which is probably meant to blur the boundaries between actual and fictitious books, and draw our attention to the materiality of the book and its "future pages", even if it seems to insist rather heavily on one (minor) character. In "this book", Nathan insists, he is only marginal, and the leading role is ostensibly assigned to Tom, repeatedly called "our hero", in a parodic mood that mimics the possessive condescendence of eighteenth and nineteenth century novelists (Fielding, Dickens). Similarly, Lucy becomes "our girl" (209), but to Tom belongs the distinction of bearing the title of Hero of this book" (12), while the title of the book itself slips from the cover into the inside pages, therefore into the diegesis: "Tom, the long-suffering hero of these Brooklyn Follies" (157).

What is more, there are books within books, "wheels within wheels" as Tristram Shandy would put it, since Nathan is also writing The Book of Human Folly: Not only does the framing book share the word "folly" with the framed book, but the novel we are reading contains stories worthy of the framed opus (even if they are much darker in mood), such as the brainless, macho behaviour of Marina's husband, the foolish self-centered blindness of Nancy's "James Joyce" or, more tragically, the madness of Flora, which, as Polonius would say, is not without method, since Harry's schizophrenic daughter, in the midst of her hostile address to Tom, wittily drops a relevant and unacknowledged quotation from the opening stanza of Dante's Inferno: "Tom Wood. I know all about you. In the middle of life's journey, I lost myself in a dark wood" [6] (34).

What creates a difference with previous self-reflexive novels by Auster is the fact that when the narrator evokes the book he is writing, he insists on orality in the same breath: "I have rattled on for a dozen pages" (12) creates a strange, oxymoronic impression, so narrowly does it fuse voice and penmanship. Much later, Nathan dines with his daughter and tells her the story he has been writing for us; he "fills her in" not episode by episode but "chapter by chapter", "editing out" some of the more unfortunate episodes (234), thus purposely blurring the boundary between oral tale-teller and writer. He even compares himself to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, "spinning [his] tales until the end of the night" (235), well aware of course that the yarns of the ancient mariner, and the voice he uses to tell them, are imaginary creations contained within Coleridge's silent, printed words.

In the chapter devoted to the idyllic moments spent in Vermont, Nathan writes a vibrant homage to the Chowder Inn, alias the "Hotel Existence", using the device of anaphora, but the repeated verb is "talk" not "write": "I want to talk about" (166). However in the last two paragraphs the anaphoric phrase changes to "I want to remember", thus underlining the deeply nostalgic and elegiac nature of this celebration of a time now dead and gone, belonging to a more innocent past, before Harry's death (although in the chronology of the story-telling, the reader does not know this yet). But Nathan does "talk", and beautifully, creating poetic, nostalgic sentences such as "I want to remember the cerulean dusks, the languorous, rosy dawns, the bears yelping in the woods at night" (166). The rhythm is slow, leisurely, quite fitting for the dreamy mood evoked here, and the last phrase, which conveys all the magic of the American wilderness, rounds off the sentence with an elegant, harmonious tetrameter made up of a trochee (yelping) and an anapaest (in the woods) framed by two iambs. Later Nathan dwells once more on the elegiac sense of loss, that perfect, careless day having been shattered by the trauma of Brightman's death, so that the memory has become fragmentary, "a mass of isolated impressions". Nevertheless, Nathan's voice does not fail to conjure up a few of theses impressions for us, in a dreamy sequence of lyrical substantive sentences:

The sudden glimpse of a garter snake wending its way through the grass. The four-note lament of an unseen mockingbird. The thousand leaves of an aspen tree fluttering like wounded moths as the wind slides through the branches. (194)

Nathan's narrating, "written" voice, just like the talking, oral, "immediate" voices of the characters in the dialogues, is extremely "nice" (if we use the word in its original meaning of choosy, carefully selective, or finicky) and is characterised by originality of vision and freshness of expression. Kafka, when writing letters to a little girl about her doll, nevertheless was careful to perfect each sentence, "with excruciating attention to detail", to create a prose that was "precise, funny, and absorbing" (155). Just like him, Auster has Nathan chiselling his words and his phrases. Where his daughter Rachel would have used two flat words such as "very hot", Nathan writes a whole vivid, highly evocative paragraph about New York's "vile" weather and the synaesthetic capacity of heat to aggress all the senses, turn itself into eye-searing light and head-cracking noise, "a sweltering, oppressive, ninety-six-degree onslaught of humidity and pounding light" (220). Descriptions of characters are another field in which the voice that Auster lends to Nathan shows its power and its precision: short, immediately evocative vignettes that capture not only the physical appearance of the character but probe deeper inside, into the soul, as is the case when Nathan describes Stanley Chowder (167). Paul Auster knows how to fertilise the English language and invent anew with every new book of his. He would certainly agree with the opinion of novelist and short-story writer Richard Ford, who once wrote:

English [...] is a remarkably adaptable and accepting literary language, full of nuance, flexibility, minute coloration as well as the possibility of growth from without. I never hear regarding English what I do of French in France, that he or she 'knows perfect English'. Except in the minds of fifth grade teachers [...] there is no perfect English not in America anyway, and certainly not for the purposes of imaginative writing. There is only interesting and not interesting English, vivid and boring English. [Ford xv]

Part of the charm of Nathan's prose is that he surprises us by giving a new lease of life to tired old phrases or images, that is by giving an unexpected twist to banal-sounding words. Thus "I don't give a flying fuck" (2, my italics), with its alliteration and incongruous association of words, adds a light touch of verbal fantasy to a tired, threadbare piece of profanity, "fuck", just as they transform and twist a banal collocation, "flying duck". Much later, the very banal sentence "she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen" takes on a radically new and challenging visage simply because Auster changes the pronoun: "He was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen" (221). A remarkably simple, reticent but highly effective way of conveying to the reader the mystery, grotesque tragedy, and bravura of cross-dressing and transexuality.

The same kind of quiet shock occurs with the very opening sentence of the novel, "I was looking for a quiet place to die" in which the last two words utterly deny and warp the quiet, matter-of-fact, mundane expectations raised by the first seven words. The second sentence, opening with "Someone recommended", pursues the isotope of flat-hunting, the normality and ordinariness of real estate preoccupations that clash so humorously with the idea of suicide and the verb "to die". There is very effective dead-pan humour in this original incipit which causes the reader, after a double start, to sit up and take notice (which is exactly what a successful, well-written first paragraph should do). To round off the effect, the first and the last sentences of the first paragraph are both pentameters, albeit not iambic ones, with alliterations in K (looking, quiet) and assonances in [ai] (I, quiet, die) in the first case, alliterations in S (silent, sad) and the same assonances in [ai] (silent, my, life) in the second.

5. The deadly fall of speech into silence

From the first page rises a voice speaking out of nowhere, to nobody, breaking the very silence it claims to crave. It is a fanciful, tongue-in-cheek variation on the kind of book that insists on its future posthumous nature, like Graham Swift's Ever After which begins "These are, I should warn you, the words of a dead man" (Swift 1) or Paul Auster's own novel The Book of Illusions in which the narrator specifies: "If and when this book is published, dear reader, you can be certain that the man who wrote it is long dead" (Auster 2002, 318), thus mirroring Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe, a translation of which the same narrator has just completed. As if writing conferred upon the word a deadly slant, as if the oral voice were threatened by the printed word. But it is only a threat: Chateaubriand survived the publication of his memoirs, and the last words of The Book of Illusions are: "I live with that hope" (Auster 2002, 321). Writing, literary writing, cannot kill the word, as sometimes simple transcription of the spoken word can, as Roland Barthes stated in the preface to a volume of his collected interviews:

Nous parlons, on nous enregistre, des secrétaires diligentes écoutent nos propos, les épurent, les transcrivent, les ponctuent, en tirent un premier script que l'on nous soumet pour que nous les nettoyions de nouveau avant de le livrer à la publication, au livre, à l'éternité. N'est-ce pas « la toilette du mort » que nous venons de suivre ? Notre parole, nous l'embaumons, telle une momie, pour la faire éternelle. Car il faut bien durer un peu plus que sa voix : il faut bien, par la comédie de l'écriture, s'inscrire quelque part. (Barthes 9)

Literary writing, far from being deadly, has the power to "resurrect" (Auster 2006, 302), or so Nathan claims, as he unveils his plans for yet another bookish project: he wants to write the biographies of "the ordinary, the unsung, the workaday people" (301), in order to keep them alive for those who loved them, and this involves creating the firm of Bios Unlimited. It was Nathan's stay in hospital and his imagined brush with death that triggered the idea, and also his brief meetings with other men who, like him, were "no one", no one in the face of death, before which we are all equal, no one in the eyes of America, and yet, the narrative implies, who were also all worthy of being called "ordinary Americans". The first one, significantly, is Egyptian-born Omar Hassim-Ali, father of four, modest taxi-driver, who "had been living in America since 1980" (298) and who, like Hispanic Javier Rodriguez or Anglo-Saxon Rodney Grant (300), is one of the bricks that make up contemporary America. Hassim-Ali, "chauffering a fare across the Brooklyn Bridge", has as much claim on the USA and the American Dream as anybody else, and, to paraphrase an American icon, he would have as much right as Joyce, Harry or Nancy to state proudly: "Ich bin ein Brooklyner". The detailed introduction of new characters so late in the story has nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with ideology and symbolism. In America in the wake of 9/11, just as in London after the July 2005 bombings, Muslims and Asians became immediately subject to the hostility, fear and resentment, even harassment, of a mainstream population that seemed oblivious to the fact that there had been many Muslim people of Asian or Arab origin among the victims. Since the story ends "just forty-six minutes" before the attack on the World Trade Center (303), Omar Hassim-Ali's benign presence takes on a deeper significance.

Critics like Yvonne Zipp and David Hellman have not failed to notice that The Brooklyn Follies ends just as 9/11 is about to begin; Hellman insists that "if we can remember past our collective amnesia, the new millenium held promise until September 2001" and he estimates that The Brooklyn Follies is "the first authentic attempt to deal with the post-Sept. 11 world" (Hellman M-1). What reviewers have failed to notice however is that if Paul Auster does use the apocalyptic, inflated language of doom that was so prevalent in the wake of 9/11, with the attendant ideology of the "clash of civilizations" developed by the likes of Samuel Hutchinson, he does not use it for 9/11, but for an earlier event, the election of George W. Bush in 2000, which Nathan Glass sees as the cynical silencing of Democrat voters by the theft of their votes in Florida, by "the staging of a legal coup" (244). Through an election, as the French language shows by calling a vote une voix, the voters "speak" their opinion. The real line of fracture, the real world-rocking catastrophe hinges around this election, even if, ostensibly, the sentence "The entire world changed for me after that" refers more to Aurora's disappearance than to politics (Auster 2006, 244). Nathan pretends to be too busy with Aurora to take an interest in the election, but nevertheless he takes care to relay, in his blunt, no nonsense voice, Tom's damning opinion of the president to be:

if Bush turned out to be the winner, [Tom] said, we could forget all that claptrap about "compassionate conservatism". The man wasn't a conservative. He was an ideologue of the extreme right, and the instant he was sworn into office, the government would be controlled by lunatics. (242).

Paul Auster, in his author's discourse, has been clear about his anti-Bush opinions, and he does not hesitate to relay them in his fiction. He also used the narrative voice of The Brooklyn Follies to make a committed political statement, an implicit protest against the temptation of jingoism and of simple, essentialist, binary oppositions of "us" and "them". September 11 is kept off-stage, in the wings of Auster's theatre, while the centre of attention focuses on the thuggish tactics of the Republican Party, watched by Tom and Honey, "horrified", glued to their television set for five weeks (244). Similarly, in Man in the Dark, Auster's latest novel to date, the story within the story takes place in a dark, dystopian universe, a science fiction, alternative America in which 9/11 never happened, but where, in the wake of the 2000 election, some sixteen states seceded and took up arms against the federal government. Again critics have read the book as a post 9/11, post-catastrophe novel of trauma, yet it ought to be noticed that here once more the enemy is within, and the Civil War of the 1860s, along with contemporary anti-federalist terrorists, haunt the text.

In The Brooklyn Follies also the threat comes from inside, not from a foreign culture or from the Muslim religion but from right-wing ideologues and "born-again holy rollers", "all that fundamentalist ranting and raving" (261). It is significant that what Nathan Glass remembers of Kafka is Amerika and the distorted image of the Statue of Liberty, "an upraised sword in her hand", "an incredible image" "like something from a bad dream" (152). David Minor's subtle psychological violence contributes to the threat to free thought, tolerance and democracy, and is artfully expressed in an ambiguous, only half negative sentence: "As long as David didn't push too hard on shoving Jesus down my throat, I wasn't what you'd call an unhappy camper" (261). The Brooklyn Follies has been looked down upon with a certain condescension because it seemed to revel in its story-telling, and because it seemed much lighter in mood and tone than the usual, sombre Austerian metafictions. Thus Jeff Turrentine calls the novel (albeit affectionately) a "conventional" "piece of candy" and "life-affirming yarn". And yet its voice is not as monochord as might seem at first; there are many nuances in this endearing book, and its interweaving of voice and letters, writing and orality is a striking achievement. "Books don't bleed", Harry argued, "and they certainly don't defecate" (29, italics in the original). But pace Aurora, they can talk, and they do. As Nathan aptly reminds us: "one should never underestimate the power of books" (302).


[1] "In the beginning was the Word, and the Wod was with God, and the Word was God" John 1:1, quoted in Auster 2006, 251.

[2] A passage similar to the description of the noise Effing makes when eating soup in Moon Palace.

[3] Long dialogues in a homodiegetic narrative belong to a series of conventions and necessitate willing suspension of disbelief, since the narrator sets down verbatim what each person said, as if he had had a tape recorder to record the conversation before sitting down later to transcribe it.

[4] The salesman, in a flash, created a portmanteau word uniting the name of President Nixon and the word pumpernickel, which designates a German-style rye bread.

[6] A play which, because of its humour, fantasy and implausibility, and its fairy kingdom, has points in common with the American tradition of "tall tales".

[7] Nathan also enjoys dropping Shakespearian phrases, as when he imitates Hamlet pondering on the options of being or not being: "Ah, there's the rub" (79).


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Pour citer cette ressource :

Catherine Pesso-Miquel, "The spoken word and the written word in Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2009. Consulté le 18/03/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/dossier-paul-auster-1/the-spoken-word-and-the-written-word-in-paul-auster-s-the-brooklyn-follies