Sunday, February 8, 2009

Like Twenty-one Elephants

When I was in New York last month - a wide-eyed first timer - I was told the story of P.T. Barnum walking 21 elephants over the Brooklyn Bridge in 1884. It was a stunt to prove the safety of the audacious new suspension bridge built to link Lower Manhattan to the then City of Brooklyn. Unlike the elephants, I didn't get to cross the bridge - too much to do in Manhattan and too little time with a daughter with stars in her eyes - but I have put it top of my list for next time.

The main reason for crossing the bridge is one of my favourite writers: Paul Auster, whose The Brooklyn Follies I read while away. Park Slope, Brooklyn, is one of those places I think I know well because Auster has served it up to me so brilliantly in novels and screenplays (remember the joys of Smoke?) But a place is never quite as you imagine it to be is it? I thought I knew Manhattan thanks to Woody Allen, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Aniston, De Lillo, Wharton, James, Auster etc, but having been there now I know I know it better, or rather differently. I can see the geography more clearly for sure (see the casual way I can drop in a phrase like 'Lower Manhattan') and between the lines of a book set in NYC I can now take in with little effort the concentrated-jostling-multi-lingual-cheek-by-jowl-living-in-the-canyons-skyward-thrusting-angst-energy-hubris thing that defines it.

And Park Slope is part of that, right? Well it is and it isn't. The 'isn't' is what I know and don't know. And what I don't know doesn't materially matter, this is fiction after all. When I open the pages of a book set in Brooklyn it will always be in my Brooklyn - as sketchy or as detailed as I want. It would just be nice to underline the writing of an Auster book like Brooklyn Follies with glimpses of the real Brooklyn. The 'oh yes' moments I got reading McGrath's Ghost Town while in Manhattan.

The Brooklyn Follies is a terrific novel. One of those stories which rolls forward with only brief glances backwards - a tale told by the protagonist as if he's reading from the book he's writing (in this case a collection of stories of human folly). It begins 'I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn....' Nathan is 59 and suffering from lung cancer and a life he'd rather forget. In Brooklyn, random events and chance meetings with people that include a slippery bookshop owner, a depressed nephew and a runaway nine-year-old help Nathan forget. And he writes it all down ...

So there it is: the usual Auster meta-fictional story-telling where the character is the author ... to a point... and the reader doesn't always know what is story story and what is real story, and the author directs and sums up what's happening like one of the Brothers Grimm, or - as he puts it - the Ancient Mariner. Nathan is also one of those dudes Auster likes to write about that has had setbacks and for whom random stuff and strange coincidences are a transformation of sorts, there is the democratic cast of characters Auster readers have come to love - each person with a story that's given space and is worth hearing, there are those long conversations which can become speeches and range from banal to philosophical, there's the author's constant playfulness with identity and the stuff of family, and the sudden breakouts from the momentum of the story to lay out out clearly on the page what is good in this corner of the planet. Finally there is his love of place: Brooklyn.

Some of the reviews I've read (spoiler alert on the linked review - last para gives the end away) think Auster is taking the easy route with this his tenth novel and simply ticking the boxes. Well, you see, I read Auster because I like the boxes he ticks. Very much indeed.

Which is why I want to cross the bridge. It's not just about real glimpses of a place I haven't been, it's a fandom thing - seeing where these excellent books have come from, what inspired them. Breathing the same air. My friend, David, tells me there's a bookshop in Park Slope Auster hangs out in, and I might just spot him there. Better start saving.


Anonymous said...

Glad you had a great time. I have a colleague who has met Auster, said he was the nicest ( and also very attractive man). I think the Book of Illusions my fav.

Mary McCallum said...

Yes, thank you GG, I knew there was another reason to infiltrate the bookshop. And I don't remember reading The Book of Illusions exactly, which doesn't mean I haven't ... will check it out.

Anonymous said...

Mary what a shame ytou didn't get to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. We have family in NYC so get there every second year to visit and whether it is "summer, winter, or fall" we always walk across the bridge, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, then stroll around for a few hours (not in winter!), have a meal at one of the numerouns wonderful cafes, and then catch the subway back to Manhattan.
I warmly recommend to all NY visitors to not miss walking this wonderful old bridge with its special elevated pathway high above both road and water for those on foot or on bicycles.

Mary McCallum said...

Dear Bookman - It sounds wonderful - I have now underlined in red ink the Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn at the top of my list now for Visit no. 2. You know you should write a Bookman's Guide to NY! I'd buy it. (And lucky you having family there.)

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