Auster, Paul (2010), Sunset Park, Faber and Faber
Given the fact that I have written a few unflattering reviews of Paul Auster novels, in particular of The Brooklyn Follies, In The Country of Last Things and Invisible, I was personally quite surprised that it was still possible for any new book by the graying Brooklynite to disappoint me. In his last novel, Invisible, though up to his usual tricks, Auster managed to wring some new and interesting effects from his writing, thus producing his best novel in a while. In some ways, it could be described as a return to form, especially after dismal showings such as Man in the Dark or Brooklyn Follies. If a return to form was, indeed, a correct description, there’s no doubt that Sunset Park, his most recent novel, marks an immediate loss of said form. To repeat: it’s not just that this is a bad novel overall, it’s substandard even for an entry in Paul Auster’s severely underwhelming oeuvre. Sunset Park is, vaguely, the story of a college dropout, and his family, both his immediate family, and a kind of adopted or associated family of friends and acquaintances. Like much of his recent work, especially Travels in the Scriptorium, this novel is crammed with allusions to and echoes of books from better days; additionally, Auster uses other people’s work as a crutch for his narrative to work and to lend it depth. What power the book has is exclusively due to the way Auster makes use of texts like Beckett’s play Happy Days, and William Wyler’s movie The Best Years Of Our Lives. Between his old work, and the work of Beckett and Wyler, Auster hangs a wispy thin story, with forgettable and clichéd characters, and a pervasive melancholy reminiscent of the weakest of Philip Roth’s recent books. It’s an old man’s pessimistic look back at books he liked, books he wrote, a sentimental gaze into the abyss of age. Auster’s voice is so strong and distinctive in Sunset Park that we keep forgetting that the book’s protagonist is a 28 year old man, because the voice, outlook and resigned pathos that most marks this character is that of a man several decades his senior. If this voice wasn’t deadeningly dull, the incongruity could have given rise to interesting readings. On the other hand, this distinctive voice is the novel’s main selling point.
Dull it is, yet Auster seems additionally committed to giving the whole proceedings an air of creepiness by having his protagonist engage in anal sex with a very child-like looking minor. When Miles Heller, Sunset Park‘s central character, meets the girl, Pilar Sanchez, he thinks that
she was even younger than sixteen, just a girl, really, and a little girl at that, a small, adolescent girl wearing wearing tight, cut-off shorts, sandals and a skimpy halter top.
Granted, these are just appearances, since Miles met Pilar the month she turned seventeen, but that difference is a legal difference only. Not only does Miles see Pilar as a young girl, he also plays games with her that his father played with him, and the decision (suggested by Pilar) to not have vaginal intercourse is never framed in explicit terms like these. Instead, Pilar offers to have sex up the “funny hole” and not up the “mommy hole”, and
he has abided by her wishes, restricting all member penetration to her funny hole and putting nothing more than tongue and fingers in her mommy hole.
The whole affair is, from the start, clothed in terms of childhood, of paternal relations and the like. Miles teaches Pilar about the world, about literature and tells her stories about baseball. Miles is a man who matured prematurely, who left his own home before he would have needed to, and his paedophiliac attraction to Pilar clearly stems from this aborted childhood and the resulting feeling of being ensconced in exile. In some ways, his relationship to Pilar is a re-enactment of the relationship he had with his father. Yet there’s never even a shred of doubt that the two are engaged in a deeply intimate and sexual affair, one that eventually leads to a proposal of marriage. Miles knows that what he does it at least illegal, he has “qualms and inner hesitations”, and he is afraid “some riled-up busybody” could denounce him. Everybody else is fine with it, really, including Miles’ family, most of Pilar’s, and the few friends Miles manages to acquire in the course of Sunset Park. This is somewhat sordid, or, as I said: creepy, and yet there’s nothing gratuitous about it, since the book’s structure, which keeps repeating similar motifs and tropes, completely absorbs it. Readers not used to Auster’s brash non-committal attitude and his pervasive use of misogyny (cf. especially my reviews of The Brooklyn Follies and In The Country of Last Things) may be put off by it, yet since the book is very much geared towards Auster fans that’s not going to be a common problem.
Also, the affair with Pilar takes up comparably little space in the 300 page strong novel. After Miles is threatened with exposure, he leaves Miami (where he met Pilar) and moves, as is to be expected of an Auster novel, to Brooklyn, more specifically, to Sunset Park. In Auster’s work, Brooklyn has, long since, ceased being a real place, and has become a theater of Auster’s various selves, its streets, history and residents used as literary more than as topographical markers. There are multiple ways in which this, too, is the case in Sunset Park as well, most obvious in the fact that Miles puts his affair to the Latino girl on hold and moves to a neighborhood that is predominantly Hispanic. This distancing act, which for Auster is often part of a strategy that disowns commitment and putative ideals that might be part of the novel’s discourse, actually has a positive effect in Sunset Park, where it puts Miles and his creepiness at some remove from us and the author. That said, there are a lot of things that are at a remove from us as readers, mostly because as Auster gets older, he seems to draw more from his own work than from his imagination or thinking which wasn’t exactly bountiful to begin with. Now, though, Auster’s work reads like a catalogue of past Auster. Most of the similarities are, however, restrained to Miles Heller’s story. As we enter the book, we find Miles working a job that involves cleaning out abandoned houses, remove objects and trash from them. The description of the job, which extends over the first four pages, contains undoubtedly by far the best writing of the whole book, yet draws inspiration (or offers homage) to In The Country of Last Things (cue Baudrillard reference). Miles’ mind, adolescence and education, as its offered up to us, in turn, corresponds closely to almost any other male character of the same age Auster has ever written, to Moon Palace‘s Fogg, for example, but especially to The Brooklyn Follies‘ Tom. Sunset Park is like a museum of Auster artifacts, and since Auster has written a few decent books before and quite generally has been writing actively and intensely for decades now, Sunset Park doesn’t go under completely. Like the dullest of vampires, it feeds on the cardboard carcasses of Auster’s past fame, as Auster himself does.
For all that he borrows from his own work, however, this time he didn’t bother to come up with the clever structures that have almost become a trademark of his writing. Brazenly, he copied only what was easy enough to copy. Apart from the intertextual links and mirrors, the book is remarkably straightforward, yet if we’ve learned anything from Auster’s past work, it’s that he’s strongest whenever structure and tricks play a large role. The more he relies on sentimental, emotive, realistic narrative, the more his lack of fundamental novelistic skills shows. And as the book’s plot unfolds, so does our disappointment with Auster’s structural restraint. In more than one way, the book feels like a first draft, some aspects fully worked out, some things half-baked, not even tentative or sketched, but executed in a bored, uninterested way. Most of these unfinished, tedious sections are about Miles’ friends, specifically about Bing Nathan and his housemates. Miles, as we soon learn, fled New York in the aftermath of fratricide, moving to various cities all over the US, settling finally in Miami, keeping it all secret from his parents. Bing Nathan (yes, another Nathan) is the only person with whom he kept in touch, relying on him for news of his family. Bing, we eventually learn, has been a double agent, supplying Miles’ parents with information just as he kept Miles in the loop. Given Sunset Park‘s preoccupation with various kinds of intertextuality, Bing’s double role as informant can certainly be read poetologically as a way to describe how texts feed into other texts, or as a model for the interaction of readers and writers, etc., ad nauseam. But such a reading would lend complexity to a simple set-up and an even more simple, perfunctorily executed, character. To return to the story: Bing has moved into an abandoned building in Sunset Park, wherein he squats with two other housemates. Among them, a woman writing a dissertation on the aforementioned Wyler movie (which apparently every single character in the book knows and loves) and a female painter, who spends a great deal of time sketching her fellow housemates, especially Bing Nathan. Neither woman is more than a rough sketch, an assortment of well-known clichés, used to make a specific point in Auster’s narrative of personal growth and each woman adds a mirror to Auster’s blunt funhouse of 1980s cleverness.
The main character remains Miles Heller, and he’s the only character who has any kind of depth. Or rather, him and his father, Morris Heller. Miles’ father mostly serves as point of reference for the author. His voice is identical to Miles’, but in him, there’s nothing incongruous about his age and his points of view. And while we sense an authorial wistfulness and sentimentality in Auster’s Miles/Fogg/Tom characters, Morris is clearly a grown-up duplicate, who represents the author within the novel’s framework. Quite apart from his role as the complementary listener/source in Bing Nathan’s duplicitous career as Miles’ and Morris’ informant, Morris is also depicted as an investigator of sorts. With Bing Nathan’s information in tow, Morris clandestinely follows his son around. More than once we are reminded of Auster’s New York Trilogy, as we become privy to Morris’ odd tactics that involve inventing undercover personas. The threefold way that Morris controls the flow of information (informing Bing, listening to Bing, and finally investigating on his own), his usurpation of Auster’s familiar tropes of detection, all this is evidence of a kind of authorial representation. But it’s not just Miles’ father. It seems the closer we move in on Miles, the more influence characters have on structure and writing of the book (without becoming less of a cliché). Miles’ mother Mary-Lee is almost as significant as his father, although she’s accorded less time onstage. Miles’ parents are divorced and as Miles returns to New York, so does his mother, preparing to appear in a production of Beckett’s Happy Days. Beckett’s text is scattered all over Auster’s in several ways, one of which is an obvious parallel between Winnie and Mary-Lee, as far as certain aspects of characterization are concerned; as the book draws to a close, her influence becomes even more marked, as the text, as text, directly mimics Happy Days by including descriptions of Mary-Lee’s actions in parentheses, written to resemble Beckett’s fastidious stage directions. This is, of necessity a brief sketch of a plenitude of intertextual tools Auster makes use of, and I haven’t even explained any of the ways that The Best Years Of Our Lives is worked into the text.
All these are the games of a tired old man, coasting on past successes, making use of the same characters and the same tools for the millionth time, with radically diminishing returns. His writing remains as unremarkable as ever, and his characters as flat as ever. As always, the book might make a very nice movie, but fails utterly as a literary work of art. Auster demonstrates again, as if we needed to be reminded, that, despite his travails, elbow-grease and obvious cleverness, he’s just not accomplished, smart, talented or committed a novelist as he would need to be to pull off his ambitious writing. Although, actually, Sunset Park isn’t even ambitious, it’s as if he’s given up on himself, given up on creating work that is at least up to his own standards. And this he shares with his hapless protagonist. While many Auster novels end on a note of hope, suggesting a fresh start, new beginnings, the sun sets in Sunset Park without leaving a glimmer of days and suns to come. The final chapter, while brimming with sentimentality, is rather impressive, and the ending is comparably strong, and if Auster was a better writer, the end could have a tragic, powerful impact. As it stands, we have nothing, not even routine Auster. This is sub-Auster. Here’s this: if you believe The Brooklyn Follies to be a good book, chances are you will enjoy Sunset Park, as well. If you are a fan of Auster’s better work, you might still enjoy Sunset Park. Anyone less than a fan should stay away from this book. Don’t buy it, don’t read it, don’t make a gift of it. If less people read Auster’s books, he might write less. It’s a win-win scenario all round.
A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.