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Sumus Quod Sumus

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Last week I read Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and today I finished Paul Auster‘s The Brooklyn Follies, inadvertently studying the early part of this decade in New York, in reverse chronological order. Whereas NY lit darling Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel is about coming to terms with atrocity and loss in the wake of 9/11, The Brooklyn Follies is so staunchly “pre-9/11” that the novel actually concludes at 8:00 a.m., September 11, 2001. Much could be said about the styles of the two books reflecting the eras they occupy, but I’ll leave that matter to the academics and English majors who are forced to discuss such bland cliches.

The parallel between the two books that I’d like to talk about is a gradual shift that occurs in the voices of both novels’ narrators. Voice shifts, for better or worse, happen frequently in novels, and can typically be attributed to either a character’s transformation or an author’s straying from plans. The voice changing in both novels here examined is notable because it belongs to that unfortunate second cast.

Not that the shift detracts terribly from the end result in either case.  ELIC and TBF are both above average novels.  In TBG the change could not be more welcome- the sudden thawing of Nathaniel Glass’s demeanor pulls the novel out of the “High School Composition” feel that pervades the opening section.  Check out these first few sentences:

I was looking for a quiet place to die.  Someone recommended Brooklyn, and so the next morning I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain.  I hadn’t been back in fifty-six years, and I remembered nothing.

One expects better from Mr. Auster.  He eventually delivers by taking the grave, humourless curmudgeon of the opening pages and retrofitting him into the role of wise, altruistic paterfamilias.  From then on the novel improves with each page, but the change is never satisfactorily explained.

Unfortunately, nearly the opposite is true in ELIC. The first few pages of ELIC detail the thoughts of a mind on fire, inventing, explaining, and free-associating in a rushed yet lucid manner that is both comic and mystifying.

What about a teakettle?  What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack with me?  I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sing the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raison d’etre, which is a French expression that I know.  Another good thing is that I could traing my anus to talk when I farted.  If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I’d train it to say, “Wasn’t me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart.  And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside of Paris, which is in France, obviously, my anus would say, “Ce n’etais pas moi!

Our narrator, Oskar Schell, remains delightful throughout the book, but the bottled-chaos energy that drives the opening section is gradually sapped.  It is impossible to argue that this change in voice can be attributed to growing up or a change of heart, because Oskar is 9 and, we are lead to assume, has Asperger’s Syndrome.  It seems unlikely his mode of interacting with the world would change to be more measured, precise, and focused, over the course of a year.

Yet one might say the speaker in the opening section would be unable to convey the whole of what the book wanted to accomplish.  Fair.  But to split hairs, technically anything can be done when the writer is capable enough.

Alas, very few of us are Yeatses and Joyces.  Most of us can only make do with the inspiration granted us, and hope to wrestle a passable product out of it.  And often the thing we make ends up little resembling the thing we thought we were making.  I cite Auster and Foer (who in his picture on wikipedia just looks so damn much like Alan Cummings in Goldeneye) only to show that even eminently capable authors are subject to the tricky winds of creation.

Written by Peter Kelly

May 25, 2009 at 10:00 pm