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Old 21-04-2010, 09:02 AM   #1
nicx27
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Default Discussion - The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Tess's choice for our April book group read was The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster - let's discuss it.

Here are some discussion questions if anybody fancies using them. Obviously, they're quite lengthy, so you might just want to use them as a guide rather than answering each one (or not use them at all).

1. What role does redemption play in the novel? Nathan tells us that he returned to Brooklyn because “I was looking for a quiet place to die,” and yet he manages to build a quirky, vibrant life. What are some other examples of redemption in the book?

2. The need for companionship both causes pain for the characters in The Brooklyn Follies and at the same time offers them fulfillment. What alliances and loves develop which demonstrate this need? How do the need for community and the need for love distinguish themselves or blend into one another?

3. Nathan claims that he is not the central character of this story. “The distinction of bearing the title of Hero of this book belongs to my nephew, Tom Wood.” In what ways is this statement misleading? In what ways is it accurate? Why would Nathan make such a claim?

4. Coincidence plays a huge role in The Brooklyn Follies: Nathan finding Tom at the book store, for example, or Nathan’s car breaking down in Vermont and leading to The Chowder Inn. How is both the plot and character development driven by chance, or twist of fate, in this novel?

5. When Nathan first encounters his nephew Tom, he sees that his favorite relative has become “a sad sight to behold . . . everything about him suggested defeat.” How do Tom’s failures mirror Nathan’s disappoints about his own life, his own fate at the outset of the novel, prior to the revitalization of his life? How do their respective recoveries also reflect one another?

6. Contemporary American fiction often focuses on the individual; The Brooklyn Follies weaves a tapestry of community. In the suburbs, where Nathan felt isolated, he believed his life was “sad and ridiculous.” He comes to Brooklyn seeking solitude and yet finds kinship almost by accident. What do you see in this commentary on city life versus suburban life?

7. In this novel, how does Brooklyn act as a fortress of reason vis-à-vis the rest of the country? What damage do we see wrought outside of the city and corrected as a result of a character’s move to the urban environment?

8. How would you describe Nathan’s style as a narrator? What are the advantages and disadvantages does this style of narration?

9. Look at the passage on pages 154–156 in which Tom delivers the story of Kafka’s doll. “When a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear,” he says. How can this statement, as well as the story of Kafka’s doll, serve as parable for Nathan’s life as a whole?

10. The Brooklyn Follies ends forty-six minutes before the attack on the World Trade Center, with Nathan Glass “happy, my friends, as happy as any man who had ever lived,” having just been released from the hospital after his second near-death experience. What do you think Auster is trying to convey to his audience with this reminder of the complicated and dangerous world in which we live? In what ways does the book highlight the differences of pre- and post-9/11 life in America?

11. “Another ex,” says Harry Brightman. “By the time a man gets to be our age, Nathan, he’s little more than a series of exes.” By the time we have reached the end of The Brooklyn Follies, is this statement still applicable to Nathan’s life? Why or why not?

12. In reference to Tom’s discovery of pictures of his sister Aurora in a pornographic magazine, Nathan says, “When you’ve lived as long as I have, you tend to think you’ve heard everything, that there’s nothing left that can shock you anymore . . . then, every once in a while, something comes along that jolts you out of your smug cocoon of superiority, that reminds you all over again that you don’t understand the first thing about life.” What are some other occasions during which Nathan experiences this sort of jolt? Do any other characters find themselves jolted as such?

13. In comparing Poe and Thoreau, Tom Wood has selected two American authors who were very much interested in the idea of sanctuary. How do the spirits of these two authors and the respective sanctuaries they sought infuse Tom and Nathan’s interactions? What other giants of American literature have an influence, direct or indirect, on the characters in The Brooklyn Follies?

14. “You love life,” says Nathan to Tom, “but you don’t believe in it. And neither do I.” This statement quickly becomes untrue as both men cast off their inertia. To what extent does action create belief for both Nathan and Tom? What obstacles to action do they face and overcome?

15. “All men contain several men inside them and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are,” says Nathan. While he is a rather self-aware individual, in what ways does Nathan surprise himself with another self?

16. How is this a book of both happy endings and terrible fates? Cite examples of how Auster intersperses and intertwines these two seemingly irreconcilable states.
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Old 21-04-2010, 09:30 AM   #2
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I enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading the New York trilogy by him which I have had on my TBR pile for a while.

I haven't got time to answer most of the qeustions - especially as they seem like exam essay questions!!! But I've very very briefly answered a couple.

3. Nathan claims that he is not the central character of this story. “The distinction of bearing the title of Hero of this book belongs to my nephew, Tom Wood.” In what ways is this statement misleading? In what ways is it accurate? Why would Nathan make such a claim?I'm wasn't convinced this was accurate because Tom doesn't appear in 100% of the book but then when Nathan chose his new business towards the end of the book it kind of became clear what he was doing.

8. How would you describe Nathan’s style as a narrator? What are the advantages and disadvantages does this style of narration? I think it appealed to me becuase I felt he was a very good story teller - not TOO MUCH description of everything.

Anyway - a good read for me - thank you tess for the choice and making me want to read more books on my TBR!!
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Old 21-04-2010, 10:35 AM   #3
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I very much enjoyed this book. I thought it was a lovely story. I liked the narrator and the rest of the characters. I thought they were all well developed and felt very 'real'. It was very well written and very easy to read.

I found the part involving Harry quite sad - he seemed so wise but also very gullible too! The idea of the 'Hotel Existence' intrigued me and I thought there was some truth to it, a coping mechanism. I also agree with the phrase 'one should never underestimate the power of books'.

There were a couple of instances which I found a little over the top for my liking. Plus, I wondered how mechanically minded a child of 9 would be. Would Lucy really know that by putting several cans of coca cola in the petrol tank, it would grind the car to a halt? Would it occur to her to do such a thing? I cannot imagine my daughter doing the same at that age or (I hope) at any age!

It's the first book I have read by this author and will look out for more. I am told, however, this is quite a light read compared to his other work. So that's another question I have - if you've read other books by Paul Auster, how do they compare?

The discussion questions are a bit mind-boggling!!

With regard to question 10, the whole world changed after that day! We all went along in our own happy little worlds and no-one expected anyone to do such an evil and catastropic thing like that. After that, I think we've become much more wary of people, travelling, etc. I don't think the world will ever be the same again. But, also, life goes on, too.

Question 8: I liked Nathan as a narrator, but as he is the narrator, we only have one side of the story really or his interpretation of it. We have to make up our own minds whether he is telling the truth or is just a good story-teller!

Question 9: Nathan is living his life through telling other people's stories in this book, plus he is writing a 'book of follies'. Living in an imaginary world, or story-telling, can be a sort of safety-net for the mind.

Question 4: There are quite a few instances of coincidence and chances of fate in this book. If there weren't, the story would've been completely different! As Nathan says, if Lucy hadn't put the cola in the petrol tank and they hadn't taken refuge at Honey's father's hotel, perhaps Harry would still be alive, then Tom wouldn't have got married, inherited book shop, etc, etc.

Thanks, Tess, for choosing. If I think of any other answers to the questions, I'll be back!
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Last edited by Vanessa; 21-04-2010 at 11:16 AM.
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Old 21-04-2010, 11:39 AM   #4
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Well I loved this book. I had read it before, in Oct 2008 and gave it 5*s then, and I give it 5*s now. I first came across Paul Auster when someone (Beth, I think) circulated one of his books (Travels in the Scriptorium) in the mobile library - that was Jun 08, and I read 4 more of his books in that year.

Vanessa, I think this is one of his easier books to read - it is very gentle, and it has a beginning, a middle and an end all in the right order (which some of the others don't)! Auster loves to explore themes of identity - what makes us what we are? - which you picked up yourself when you pointed out that he uses coincidences and chances of fate to drive the story.

Going back to Brooklyn Follies, I find it hard to put my finger on exactly why I like this book so much. Perhaps it's because the writing and the characters and the plot are all so down to earth and credible - you can just see it all happening. And the characters are lovely (though I would have liked to give Lucy a good slap!)
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Old 21-04-2010, 12:18 PM   #5
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Coo, these qustions are a bit hard - here are some thoughts ...

1. What role does redemption play in the novel? Nathan tells us that he returned to Brooklyn because “I was looking for a quiet place to die,” and yet he manages to build a quirky, vibrant life. What are some other examples of redemption in the book?.
Redemption is a theme Auster loves to play with. All the main characters have their shot at redemption, don't they. Harry, coming out of prison with money and setting up his book business - but he blows it. Tom is drifting along, wasting his talents as a cab driver - and he gets a new start with Honey. And Aurora thinking she had found redemption with David and then having to be rescued.

2. The need for companionship both causes pain for the characters in The Brooklyn Follies and at the same time offers them fulfillment. What alliances and loves develop which demonstrate this need? How do the need for community and the need for love distinguish themselves or blend into one another?
The only thing I can think of to say about this is that I think David needed admiration/respect more than he needed love and that he was more concerned about his place in the community than he was about the love of either his wife or his daughter.

3. Nathan claims that he is not the central character of this story. “The distinction of bearing the title of Hero of this book belongs to my nephew, Tom Wood.” In what ways is this statement misleading? In what ways is it accurate? Why would Nathan make such a claim?
I think he is just being disingenuous. Clearly Nathan is the central character in the story. But maybe this statement reflects Nathan's protective, paternal feelings towards Tom, with whom he ha a much better relationship than he does with his own daughter.

4. Coincidence plays a huge role in The Brooklyn Follies: Nathan finding Tom at the book store, for example, or Nathan’s car breaking down in Vermont and leading to The Chowder Inn. How is both the plot and character development driven by chance, or twist of fate, in this novel?
Both plot and character development are hugely influenced by chance - and yet it is done so well that it seems perfectly natural. It is scary because it makes you wonder if your own life is similarly driven - which of course is the author's intent.

5. When Nathan first encounters his nephew Tom, he sees that his favorite relative has become “a sad sight to behold . . . everything about him suggested defeat.” How do Tom’s failures mirror Nathan’s disappoints about his own life, his own fate at the outset of the novel, prior to the revitalization of his life? How do their respective recoveries also reflect one another?
Yes, it's interesting that Nathan takes up with Tom and tries to make his life better (new job, new girlfriend) just at the time when he feels unable to do the same with his own life. And yes, as Tom recovers, so does Nathan, and we see him starting pu a new relationship of his own (with Joyce).


10. The Brooklyn Follies ends forty-six minutes before the attack on the World Trade Center, with Nathan Glass “happy, my friends, as happy as any man who had ever lived,” having just been released from the hospital after his second near-death experience. What do you think Auster is trying to convey to his audience with this reminder of the complicated and dangerous world in which we live? In what ways does the book highlight the differences of pre- and post-9/11 life in America?

I think it's the fate theme again - don't get too settled because you never know when something might happen that will change your life.
I don't think the book does highlight pre- and post-9/11 differences - how can it if it ends before the event?

11. “Another ex,” says Harry Brightman. “By the time a man gets to be our age, Nathan, he’s little more than a series of exes.” By the time we have reached the end of The Brooklyn Follies, is this statement still applicable to Nathan’s life? Why or why not?
I loved that coment - it's a little chastening though! But I don't think it was true of Nathan's life by the end of the book - he was going forward again by then.

12. In reference to Tom’s discovery of pictures of his sister Aurora in a pornographic magazine, Nathan says, “When you’ve lived as long as I have, you tend to think you’ve heard everything, that there’s nothing left that can shock you anymore . . . then, every once in a while, something comes along that jolts you out of your smug cocoon of superiority, that reminds you all over again that you don’t understand the first thing about life.” What are some other occasions during which Nathan experiences this sort of jolt? Do any other characters find themselves jolted as such?
This was one instance where Tom's reaction jarred with me. I wanted to say "Surely you realise these are real women in these pictures? And that they have brothers, fathers, etc? So why the shock?"
I don't know the answer to the question though! Maybe the moment when he realised it was Lucy who sabotaged the car?

15. “All men contain several men inside them and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are,” says Nathan. While he is a rather self-aware individual, in what ways does Nathan surprise himself with another self?
I think that comment is very true. One example is when he deals with the gansters on the phone after Harry's death.

16. How is this a book of both happy endings and terrible fates? Cite examples of how Auster intersperses and intertwines these two seemingly irreconcilable states.I don't think these two states are as irreconcilable as all that. For instance Harry's death, which is a terrible shock, turns out to have a happy ending for Tom. And Aurora's life seems to oscillate between the two!
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Old 21-04-2010, 12:30 PM   #6
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I wrote these notes last week when I finished it so they don;t answer any of those scary questions, but I'll go back and have a look at them sometime, In the meantime, this is what I wrote.

I liked this. It had a quirky style which appealed to me and I found all the characters believable and engaging. The first section when Nathan took himself to live in Brooklyn was rather sad, but it soon became clear he was not as ill as he thought and once he found Tom he seemed rejuvenated. I wasn’t sure about the scam that Harry was planning and was not surprised when it didn’t go through, but Harry’s death was unexpected. I think one of the reasons I liked the book so much was the eccentric scenes such as Harry’s ash scattering and the lovely scenes with the two garage men. Lucy’s arrival revived the story for me as I felt it was flagging a bit and trying to work out what had happened to her was an intriguing part of the plot. I found I kept wanting to go back and read more and as the end came nearer, lost myself in it completely. A really good read and one I will keep for another day. And yes, Tess – it is a wonderful first line. Thanks for choosing it

Hashy - I found it hard to put my finger on why I liked this book but it just seemed to flow for me
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Old 21-04-2010, 05:37 PM   #7
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When I realised this month’s book was written by Paul Auster my heart sank! I’ve only read one other book of his and didn’t enjoy it at all, so I was surprised when I started this book at how much I was enjoying it. I liked the humorous writing style and thought the main characters were really well drawn and believable, and it kept me totally absorbed.
Having said that, I ran into a brick wall at the point where Nathan went to North Carolina to ‘rescue’ Aurora. I thought her situation was completely without credibility – a street-wise young woman like Aurora, with her experience, would never have allowed herself to be brainwashed and virtually held prisoner by the creepy David Minor.
I thought the story got back on track again once the location moved back to New York and I liked the way all the loose ends were tied up. I thought the very end of the book was unusual, with Nathan being really happy, but the reader being aware that the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre was about to happen and shatter that happiness.
A good choice Tess – you’ve restored my faith in Paul Auster.
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Old 25-04-2010, 09:18 AM   #8
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I enjoyed this book more and more as it went on.

I think it is the kind of book that you just have to run with, almost suspending disbelief as you are reading it. On the surface it is a charming, quite sentimental story, full of plots and colourful characters. The writing is good - very good - a rare treat. Through Nathan's narration, I felt like the story was softly and gently being told to me personally. I found it all very visual - I have a strong images of the people and the places, although I didn't really hear the language except when Lucy finally spoke with her Southern accent and Joyce's Victa Machuah said it all.

It is a real turnaround of a book. I had forgotten that Tess posted about the fabulous opening and it hit me anew when I started the book.

"I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn........."

However Nathan has plenty of living yet to do. It is a book of fate and chance and finding out what is around the next corner and for Nathan it turns out there are plenty of bizarre turns to take.

There were many delights that jumped off the page for me :-

The Hotel Existance - a place to live your dreams and I could see the immediate manifestation of this in the Chowder Inn.

The description of sex with Joyce as an afternoon in mid-October.

Nathan's ex-wife becoming (name deleted) and then getting captial letters "Name Deleted".

The idea of biography insurance and the power of books - everyone's life matters and it is something to outlive everyone.

The heart attack! I was very glad this wasn't the ending - there was something bigger waiting just around the corner!

The contexts that subtlely gave the book a sense of time and space like Bush being illegally handed the election.

I have lots more thoughts, but am off to read everyone else's.

My first Auster and it won't be my last.

cheers Tess.
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Old 25-04-2010, 09:35 AM   #9
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Just starting to read through thoughts. I have a huge aversion to questions and so have skipped them for now.

Hash - what was it about Lucy that made you want to give her a slap?

As a young child she had been moved from pillar to post while her mother went through everything that she went through before ending up in rehab and then getting married to a control freak who went from being a bit more than religious to being completely under the spell of a religious fanatic who turned out to being sexually abusing as well - surprise, surprise. What might have happened to her if her mother hadn't come to her senses and she had ended up living in his house! She had lived this totally dysfunctional life and then gets sent on a bus to live with her uncle. I did wonder if she might have been autistic too, but I think that she had developed some clever coping mechanisms. I loved the fact when everything was tying up so neatly at the end and couples were pairing off that she started to rail against her mother. I felt then that there was hope for her coming out of it all less damaged.
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Old 25-04-2010, 09:41 AM   #10
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Interesting comments from everyone. Things to do right now, but will be back asap.
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