At the conclusion of the grandest of French films, “Les Enfants Du Paradis” (“The Children of Paradise”) the star struck pantomime actor, Baptiste, gushes through a street-wide fete after his beloved Garance, agonizingly calling her name as her carriage rolls away. Baptiste, the people’s star of the stage, has been reduced to a member of the crowd enthralled with the spectacle of the unattainable Garance just as the masses are enthralled with him, or so goes the common interpretation. On a more elemental level I believe the saturated drama of the scene is itself meant to be the stark peak of a mammoth lost joy. The film was set in 1840s Paris, but it was filmed in occupied Vichy France. The phrase “les enfants du paradis” refers to the common folk who sat in the “god section” or nosebleeds of the old Parisian theaters, but perhaps it is also a double-entendre for all of the idealized inhabitants of the Paris of 100 years before the occupation: the children of a paradise world where epic pantomimes, dandies and thespians chase unattainable love through street carnivals.
In his latest work, “Brooklyn Follies,” Paul Auster paints a song of remembrance for the gone world of late-Clinton America.
The story begins with the narrator, Nathan Glass, fifty-nine years old, having made a hash of his marriage and relationship with his daughter and deciding to encamp in Brooklyn to write a compilation of every pathetic human foul up he has ever heard or experienced entitled “The Book of Human Folly” and to die.
“Nothing is real but chance,” Auster wrote at the start of his first and seminal novel “City Of Glass.” Nearly every sentence he has published since then has developed this thesis and “Follies” is no different. Soon, Glass has chanced into his lost nephew and a bisexual second-hand bookstore owner with a seedy past and thereafter the three of them are meandering into coincidental misadventures and stories within stories. In his earlier works the absurdity of chance has a dark overtone, but in the first three acts of “Follies” it is played as comedy. Through Nathan’s narration the characters speak and act as though they know that they are in a story and they are enjoying its increasingly implausible twists. Trembling beneath this din is the whirly-roll of the 2000 election and a series of calendar dates that taste like a countdown. Our heroes are playing in a fleeting world.
After reaching its climax Auster’s work continues in its comedic structure in the fourth and fifth acts – the characters all “marry” or find their appropriate match – but its tone changes from silly to facile. In creating a family of all the books’ far flung actors Nathan morphs from weary curmudgeon to wise confidant, and his advice – in this case to his new lover Joyce – is warm like a celebration:
“Try to roll with the punches. Keep you chin up. Don’t take any wooden nickels. Vote Democrat in every election. Ride your bike in the park. Dream about my perfect, golden body. Take your vitamins. Drink eight glasses of water a day. Pull for the Mets. Watch a lot of movies. Don’t work too hard at your job. Take a trip to Paris with me. Come to the hospital when Rachel has her baby and hold my grandchild in your arms. Brush your teeth after every meal. Don’t cross the street on a red light. Defend the little guy. Stick up for yourself. Remember how beautiful you are. Remember how much I love you. Drink one Scotch on the rocks every day. Breathe deeply. Keep your eyes open. Stay away from fatty foods. Sleep the sleep of the just. Remember how much I love you.”
Shortly after this speech Nathan is hospitalized with an inflamed esophagus that is, at first, thought to be a heart attack. While watching the adjacent hospital bed empty, refill and empty Nathan decides upon his new vocation for his re-renewed life: “Bios Unlimited,” a service to write definitive biographies for all the average people who die. In reality of course, skeletal biographies of typical strangers have become all too common in the wake of 9/11 and Iraq War II.
Nathan emerges from the hospital soaking in the spirit of this Brooklyn where foolish loners surf through absurd misadventures and emerge as the sage patriarchs of the family they create along the way. He is an American Baptiste striding through the waning jubilee of a bygone golden era:
I stepped into the cool morning air, and I felt so glad to be alive, I wanted to scream. Overhead, the sky was the bluest of pure deep blues. If I walked quickly enough, I would be able to get to Carroll Street before Joyce left for work. We would sit down in the kitchen and have a cup of coffee together, watching the kids run around like chipmunks as their mothers got them ready for school. Then I would walk Joyce to the subway, put my arms around her, and kiss her good-bye.
It was eight o’clock when I stepped out onto the street, eight o’clock on the morning of September 11, 2001–just forty-six minutes before the fist plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Just two hours after that, the smoke of three thousand incinerated bodies would drift toward Brooklyn and come pouring down on us in a white cloud of ashes and death
But for now it was still eight o’clock, and as I walked along the avenue under that brilliant blue sky, I was happy my friends, as happy as any man who had ever lived.