Admirable Auster

This week has been a bit of a right-off (and a write-off). P and I have both been on leave but the week has just flown by with almost nothing to show for it. Monday’s a blur. Tuesday was Hospital Day. Wednesday was Betty’s Bay. Thursday is the day that Beauty works here, which is why I’m sitting outside the front door with P, who is now reading the latest copy of Woman & Home. This was supposed to be our week off (at the new, improved Betty’s Bay) but instead it has been largely taken up with concerns around my mom’s health.

I don’t really feel like re-hashing the whole hospital story right now since it’s been rehashed with the family quite a few times already. Basically the angiogram showed clogged arteries and the heart doctor put in a stent on the right side (where her pacemaker is) and we’re waiting to see how that will work out. She looks better and feels better but there are still some niggling concerns (such as blood clots). But for now (touch wood) she’s doing a lot better than she was last week. (I also realised that her health problems probably go a long way towards explaining why she was being a touch difficult.)

On the reading front, I really enjoyed The Brooklyn Follies and I think it’s an excellent example of polished fiction-writing. Charming, engaging, heart-warming and not too taxing. One of the reviewers commented that Auster is “at the top of his game” and that “this superb novel about human folly turns out to be tremendously wise”. I’ve never read Auster before so I can’t compare this to his better-known New York Trilogy. And tremendously wise? Perhaps, but there was nothing here that made me really sit up and take notice. I’m also not totally happy with it but am at a slight loss to say exactly why that should be.

Perhaps my main gripe has to do with the narrator, the eminently likeable Nathan or Uncle Nat. Now I know that fiction is not meant to stand up to the same rigours as real-life, and that of course things often work out a little too easily in fiction. Real life is messy, complicated, ambiguous and full of confusing questions and doubts for which there are conflicting answers. So what’s my gripe with Nathan? He’s just too nice, I think. If I compare his life before and after he came to Brooklyn, I’m struggling to believe that this is the same guy. The Nathan in the novel is wise, witty, charming, foolish at times but also warm, engaging and lovable. He’s almost a perfect stereotype of a wise uncle. But how to reconcile this warm Uncle Nat with the dissatisfied man who slaved away for 40 years as a life-insurance salesman, who was a “terrible husband” and whose ex-wife loathes him with palpable contempt? Now I’d be the first to admit that relationships are best understood by the two people in them and that the mere fact that his ex-wife loathes him doesn’t mean that he’s a bad guy. But the turnaround from lonely, crusty ex-husband to warm, family man isn’t entirely convincing. And Tom’s turnaround as well – from a depressed, overweight bachelor stuck in a dead-end job to a happily married man just looks too neat as well.

But perhaps that’s the thing with fiction. If everything falls more or less neatly into place and all the loose variables are paired off or rounded up, isn’t that what we want? Easily identifiable characters and dramatic events? It certainly works here.

Next up is a re-read of July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. I have very little recollection of this at all and I have mixed feelings about Gordimer but it looks short and do-able.

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11 Responses to Admirable Auster

  1. verbivore says:

    I won’t say a word about Gordimer because we all know I’m just a tad biased…but what you write about Auster is interesting. I have mixed feelings about him, especially his narrators but I haven’t read Brooklyn Follies and so am interested to try this one and see what I think.

    And sm sending some energy and good thoughts for you as you work through your mom’s health problems.

  2. Dolce says:

    I’m so sorry about your mum…please send her my love. I hope she gets better soon!

  3. adevotedreader says:

    Hope your mum pulls through Pete.

    I’ve not yet read Auster from the sounds of it should start with The New York trilogy. I’ll be interested to hear about July’s people, as Verbivore has convinced me I need to read some Gordimer.

  4. doctordi says:

    I’m so glad it’s a case of so far, so good, with your mum, Pete. Gently does it, I guess.

    I was particularly interested in what you said about Auster because in earlier drafts of my own MS, I really wanted to make the point – in fiction – that life is messy and uncertain, and all it did was convince people it was completely autobiographical. It’s been challenging trying to fix this from a structural point of view without killing the original spirit of it. Very educational finding out what people will and won’t accept as conventional fiction, though. I have a whole new appreciation for the lengths authors go to creating those neat links and resolutions that make novels work as novels.

  5. Clare says:

    Sorry to hear about your mom, Pete – holding thumbs for her to get stronger soon.

    I just started reading Brooklyn Follies two days ago (am in a New York City reading glut) – What you write about the narrator is interesting; I’ll let know you what I think when I’ve finished.

  6. litlove says:

    Family medical dramas are completely draining. I’m not surprised if that’s all you can do in a week. I really want to read Auster, but I have Oracle Nights and something else on my shelves, not this one. I’ve read other books though, in which the narrative voice is too smart, too lyrical or too nice for the character. It’s so hard to unite sympathy with sufficient eccentricity to cover all those literary bases. I’m still keen to try him, though.

  7. Pete says:

    Verbivore – You’ll be happy to know that it’s partly your influence that’s made me read Gordimer again. As for my mom, I think the stents could well have sorted the problem out for now.

    Dolce – Thanks! And she’s off to Bloemfontein today (which is probably a good sign).

    Devoted – I would definitely read Auster again, and would be interested to hear your take on him. Will let you know my thoughts on the Gordimer.

    DoctorDi – You’re so right. I think to really appreciate fiction you have to write it yourself. I was thinking of a parallel narrative as I was reading the first part of The Brooklyn Follies, and it made me realise how good Auster’s writing is.

    Clare – Well I had to read something on Brooklyn since I didn’t get to hear about it firsthand! Would be interested to hear what else you reading on NYC.

    Litlove – It was quite uncanny that this medical drama happened in the two weeks that I could take my mom to hospital. I think we had a lucky escape this time. As for Auster, I definitely want to read more of his work (which will also help me to form a better opinion).

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Going through my own medical dramas here with a close family friend who went in for routine surgery for one matter and came out with a cancer diagnosis. Stage 3. It’s been totally discombobulating and remains very scary. Reading wise, am about to start the new Robert B. Parker (Jesse Stone series) and just finished Flying into the Sun by Ginger Blymyer. The adventurous Katherine finds her life changing in ways she doesn’t expect, with a man, naturally! Life takes us places and how do we respond? Very enjoyable. Loved the ending.

    Good luck with your mom.

  9. Clare says:

    Finished Brooklyn Follies a little while ago. As you said, a polished read, but somehow, frictionless (as opposed to fictionless?!) It was too easy, and too smooth. I just got The New York Trilogy the other day and will start that soon.

    Some other New York books I’ve read over the last 5 months: The World is Made of Glass (Morris West), Winter’s Tale (Mark Helprin), Forever (Pete Hamill), Specimen Days (Michael Cunningham – similar to The Hours in some ways). What the last three have in common is a sense of travelling through time in the city, from its early days into the present and beyond – a great historical view!

  10. Clare says:

    Don’t know why I mixed up The World is Made of Glass with City of God (Doctorow)… apart from the fact that I read them in the same week!

  11. Pete says:

    Clare – I am extremely impressed with all your New York reading and I’ve added those titles to my ever-growing TBR list! Love this international bookclub. Happy reading 😉

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