Thursday, January 26, 2006

Books of human folly

Ten years ago - give or take a week - I used Reading Week to go see my elder brother in Madrid. This was in the days when I was learning Spanish, so it counted as work.

As well as drinking drinks you had to set fire to, going to the "English" bars and discussing the collections of the Prado with the bro's non-English-speaking housemate, I also got taken to the cinema. The brother wanted me to see Smoke.

"It's like Pulp Fiction," he said as we took our seats, "but without the violence."

And it was: various people and bits of their stories interweaving and bouncing off each other. It's such a brilliant film, and was my first introduction to both Paul Auster and Tom Waits.

Auster's stuff I've now read most of - all his novels, his four films, most of his prose, almost none of his poetry and even his translation of a Frenchman's anthropoligical studies. Am currently two thirds through his latest, The Brooklyn Follies. And adoring it.

Like Smoke, it's pretty ambling, rambling and all over the place, with various kooky people bumping into each other, telling stories, doing odd stuff.

Funny and strange and sad, it's essentially the tale of a man dying of cancer, people-watching and trying to sort out the lives of two members of his family. And mostly that's by talking to them, and telling odd stories, and hatching odd plots. It means it's full of top facts and digressions: an image from Kafka's Amerika, the Statue of Liberty wielding a sword not a torch, leads into a story about Kafka writing letters to a small girl who'd lost her doll. And then that's picked up by our narrator "adopting" a runaway...

A fun bit: little Lucy doesn't want to be dumped at her auntie's, so when they stop off for petrol and something to eat, she sneaks off to the toilet. Nathan (the narrator) and Tom carry on chatting:
"Tom was still going at full verbal tilt, and I got so caught up in what he was saying that I lost track of Lucy. Little did we know at the time (the facts didn't come out until later) that our girl had left the restaurant through a rear door and was frantically feeding coins and dollar bills into the Coke machine outside. She bought at least twenty cans of that gooey, sugar-laden concoction, and one by one she poured the entire contents of each can into the gas tank of my once healthy Oldsmobile Cutlass. How could she have known that sugar was a deadly poison to internal combustion engines? How could the brat have been so damn clever? Not only did she bring our journey to an abrupt and conclusive halt, but she managed to do it in record time. Five minutes would be my guess, seven at the most. However long it was, we were still waiting for our food when she returned to the table. She was suddenly full of smiles again, but how could I have guessed the cause of her happiness? If I had bothered to think about it at all, I would have assumed it was because she had taken a good shit."

Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies, p. 159.

Languid and easy, there's not really a plot or purpose and it could be accused of being a bit indulgent. This and Auster's last were both heavilly criticised in Private Eye for being "easy". But it's far more frustrating than that - at least to me. It's seemingly effortless.

Auster recommendations:

1. Timbuktu
A shaggy dog story, told by the shaggy dog. This is the one I got the Dr to read and, like me, she cried.

2. Mr Veritgo
You'll believe an orphan can fly. Walt's apprenticeship to Master Yehudi is more than just becoming an illusionist.

3. In the country of last things
A haunting sci-fi type thing, with civilisation fading away whenever you're not looking. The sort of book that's good enough you have to point out to people afterwards that it is sci-fi. Like Cold Comfort Farm.

(Oh, but that's another post entirely...)

No comments: