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  • The Danger of Rereading:Disastrous Endings in Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth
  • Heidi Elisabeth Bollinger (bio)

The ethical and aesthetic challenges of narrating recent, real world catastrophes have been taken up by a number of major literary figures today, including Don DeLillo, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Safran Foer, Art Spiegelman, and Dave Eggers. Disaster fascinates and confounds the imagination, and thus contemporary fiction grapples with the overwhelming sense of unreality experienced by witnesses to catastrophe. Literature seems to offer the chance to return to the moments before a natural or man-made disaster and, with retrospective understanding, re-experience an event that spectators witnessed uncomprehendingly when it occurred. In other words, literature gives us the chance to reread the historical disaster in light of its outcome. But what can we make of fiction such as Paul Auster’s novel The Brooklyn Follies (2006) or Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008), which are not about a disaster, but which use a disaster as an instrumental narrative device? Unlike the authors mentioned above, neither Auster nor Lahiri offers a sustained literary treatment of a catastrophic event, its aftermath, or the representational challenges it poses for the fiction writer. Rather, they each employ a catastrophe to terminate their plots. Auster’s novel, the picaresque tale of Nathan Glass, a retired man re-embracing life after cancer, ends abruptly on the morning of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In the concluding story of Lahiri’s collection, the potential marriage plot of characters Kaushik and Hema is aborted when Kaushik drowns in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami during his seaside vacation in Thailand. As their plots wind down, the logic of Auster’s and Lahiri’s fictional worlds self-destructs, seemingly without reason.

In a sense, Auster and Lahiri employ disasters as deus ex machina to abruptly conclude, but not resolve, their plots. The deus ex machina, or “god [End Page 486] from the machine,” a device originally employed in Greek drama, resolves a seemingly inextricable narrative bind through a miraculous intervention: lowering a god onto the stage by machine. Auster’s and Lahiri’s catastrophes arrive like gods descending out of the clear blue sky. The concluding lines of The Brooklyn Follies, referencing the bright blue morning sky on September 11, 2001, invite readers to imagine the veering plane, whose hijackers conceived of themselves as instruments of god piloting the machine. Unaccustomed Earth is brought to a close by a stupendous tsunami wave, a natural disaster that some might call an “act of god.” As in Greek tragedy, the spectacular disaster as deus ex machina in contemporary fiction abruptly punctures the logic of the plot, and invites disbelief. Aristotle’s Poetics critiques the contrived, “irrational” (29) nature of the deus ex machina, and argues that narrative resolutions should develop organically from previous events: “the unravelling of the plot…must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the deus ex machina” (28). The author’s recourse to the deus ex machina reveals his or her failure to achieve a logical and harmonious conclusion. Admittedly, Auster’s and Lahiri’s deployment of disaster do not constitute deus ex machina in the strictest sense because rather than solve a narrative problem, each disaster precipitates a total traumatic rupture. The uncanny invocation of the veering plane or the looming wave splits the narrative, situating everything preceding it as definitively “before.” In Auster’s and Lahiri’s narratives, we do not know what comes “after” the disaster for the characters, and therefore narrative closure eludes us. What after-effects do such disastrous endings create? How does the surprising invocation of catastrophe in the concluding pages of a narrative impact our interpretation of the text as a whole?

The unsettling and even frustrating conclusions of Auster’s and Lahiri’s fiction evoke the confusion and sense of unreality generated by mass disasters. The inexplicable disastrous ending creates the urge to reread the preceding narrative in light of its unexpected end. The very lack of foreshadowing—the unexpectedness of the disastrous ending—invites the reader to seek narrative unity in the form of foreshadowing. The...


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pp. 486-506
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