Paul Auster, Sunset Park, Faber & Faber, 2010
(originally published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 24 Jan. 2011)
As with his previous novel, Invisible, Auster continues in Sunset Park with main characters who are in early adulthood. This time, however, the story is set in 2009, post-recession America, and the book can very much be read like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: a lament from and for a world in decline. This sense of decline is firstly captured by the rudderless lives of Auster’s four main characters.
First there is Miles Heller, the protagonist. He comes from a decent middle-class – but broken – New York family. He has been estranged from his father, a publisher, and his stepmother for several years. His biological mother left shortly after his birth. To make things worse, Miles suffers immense guilt because he believes that he caused his stepbrother’s death.
And so Miles drops out of university and drifts from place to place and job to job, eventually ending up in Florida. There he finds work at a company that cleans up houses that have been repossessed (foreclosed, in the American parlance). A typically Auster character, Miles photographs odd objects abandoned by the fleeing owners: a shoe, books, dirty socks, cutlery. In Florida, he falls in love with a sixteen-year-old girl, Pilar (he is 28). His first glimpses of her reminds one of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, with its attendant allusion to a doomed destiny. While their relationship is presented as one between equals, Miles nevertheless fears he will get into trouble over Pilar and flees Florida, going back to New York.
There he drifts into the company of three other twenty-somethings, who also appear to have reached dead ends in their lives. There’s Bing Nathan, an old school friend, who owns a shop called “The Hospital of Broken Things” where he fixes old things like typewriters. Ellen Brice is a failed artist who now works as an estate agent and Alice Bergstrom is a PhD student in a dead-end relationship. Squatting illegally in an abandoned house in a part of Brooklyn called Sunset Park, the symbolism is overwhelming. Instead of a future-bound vision one would expect from characters in this age group, these four are young people already facing sunset.
Once the characters are brought together, the narration shifts between them. Miles’s father also narrates part of the story. His father too is facing a broken future – his business struggling and his second marriage failing. And so the characters in the book are also “broken things”, but whether the book is a hospital for them and their world is a different story.
As with Franzen’s Freedom, there is a persistent sense of a world that has lost direction, meaning and a sense of life. It is not only the characters, but the world that they inhabit that appears hollow. And in this sense the novel can be read as an indictment of 21st Century America or a lament over its fate. And it can also be read as a literary recoil from what America has become.
But here the book struggles. It is not simply the emptiness of life in 21st century America and the consequent tragedy of these young lives that the book recoils from, but other massive changes in a culture that was always self-assured. That self-assuredness has to deal with waves of other changes.
Thus the book also recoils from “the wheezing black woman, a sniffing Indian or Pakistani man”, characters Miles encounters on the bus. It feels as if the book is not simply lamenting the loss of a general sense of meaning and the dead ends and disappointments of young people caught up in an economic and cultural wasteland. Instead, it seems to suggest that a complicating ethnic make-up may well be a causal part of a particular version of American despair. That is, the despair of the book may well rise from a previously self-assured (white) American psyche now confronted with a real America that is homeland to far more than the American dream envisioned: the American dream as no longer an exclusive patrimony, but appropriated, used and abused by whomever.
The novel doesn’t delve deep enough into the psychological make-up of the relationship between the characters, and so loses an opportunity to really investigate what is going on. The surface reasons for the characters’ dead-end lives are predictable, but there is no sense that the characters are fully connected to the problems they face. They don’t seem to care.
Is this part of the theme? I don’t know. The prose also lacks depth, and is often banal, clichéd even:
Two weeks ago, there was a heartening development, something unexpected that is still in the process of playing itself out;
After they moved in last August, there was a brief fluster of curiosity about their comings and goings.
Auster, I think, is trying hard to write in the voice of his twenty-something characters, but falls short. Or is the bland language supposed to mimic the rootlessness of the characters, the hollowness of their world and culture? Again, I’m not sure. It’s a tricky bit and would be an easy argument for a writer defending such a style. And it feels as if the author himself has given up on his characters. He doesn’t seem to care about his characters.
Or, as America flails through a deep recession, two illegal wars, massive shifts in its position in the world and inside itself, is it that the country’s chief novelists are also struggling to find the right temper for the times in their prose?