Paul Auster: Sunset Park

Auster, Paul (2010), Sunset Park, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-25878-9

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 fewer people read Auster’s books, he might write less. It’s a win-win scenario all round.

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Peter Carey: Theft: A Love Story

Carey, Peter (2007), Theft: A Love Story, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23150-8

It’s quite frightening to hear that Peter Carey’s 2006 novel Theft: A Love Story is not his best work. It is frightening because it is such an extraordinary success on almost every level. Theft manages to do so much in so few pages and yet it succeeds in never sounding convoluted or dense. It’s is a funny, suspenseful read, a book sure to appeal to almost every reader. In it, Carey manages to craft a story steeped in Australian history and culture, in art and art history, a book that tells a fast, noir-ish tale, and is linguistically sophisticated and inventive, reaching as far into theory as Deleuze. Sure, there are slow moments in the book now and then, but they are an exception. Sure, too, it lacks plausibility in many places, but despite the realistic varnish and the noir genre borrowings, Theft isn’t supposed to be awfully plausible (in terms of verisimilitude) anyway. There are other minor flaws, but the good aspects dominate the reader’s impressions of Theft.

Among these, two achievements in particular stand out. The first is Carey’s treatment of othered speech, by which I mean the speech of a character marked as “slow”. The speech and the character attached to it are finely tailored to convey to the readers the complexities of having a mind that is regarded as deviant by your compatriots, without lapsing into exploitative and exotic exaggeration. The second success in Theft is Carey’s thorough and inspired discussion of art, originality and forgery. One of his protagonists speaks of art at great length, delivering several long rants. Peter Carey is not afraid to be precise and explicit about the techniques of creating and selling art, yet we never feel lectured to. Theft is evidence of impressive insights into art, artistic inspiration and the accompanying frustrations. The result of all this is a book that I’d easily recommend to anyone interested in the topic, or, well, anyone, really. Theft: A Love Story is a very, very good novel.

The basic story revolves around two brothers, Michael and Hugh Boone, also known as Butcher Bones and Slow Bones, who get involved in an elaborate, and ultimately murderous, art scam. As Hugh has it: “Phthaaaa! We are Bones, God help us, raised in sawdust, dry each morning.” The change from ‘Boones’ to ‘Bones’ is one of several absorbing, meaningful details. For one thing, “Bones” invokes a child-like, fairy-tale setting, a children’s story, which is a genre where aptronymns are quite common, where names are tailored to fit themes of the story and to suggest elements to come or destinies to be fulfilled, they also tend to add an additional layer of characterization. Changing the name of the Boones to “Bones” is relevant to the book’s major topics in still more ways: since part of the central theme of Theft is Australia, especially in relation to other countries, I’d suggest that “Boone” is an oblique reference to Daniel and Squire Boone, two famous historical figures connected to the myth of the American Frontier. In contrast, Hugh says “[w]e are the nation of Henry Lawson”, a realistic writer, often credited with dismantling the myth of the Australian Bush.

This possible reference to Daniel Boone is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in Theft. The amount of Australian references that even I was able to catch suggest that a reader more knowledgeable about antipodean literatures and history than me would unearth multitudes. As is, I felt sometimes a bit shortchanged, bewildered by names and places that Carey just assumes the reader to understand and contextualize. Some are explicit, like the mention of Lawson, but one suspects quite a few others lurking in place-names and other nooks. This is not a significant problem, however, since Theft is written with a very clear and precise sense of place. Carey constructs a version of Australia, Japan or the United States that works like a charm even for provincial, untraveled readers like me. The reader understands what any given place is supposed to signify, how it works within the story and how it interacts with the characters.

The plot is, typical for noir fiction, very convoluted and dense, relying strongly on revelations and twists. Much of it reminded me of Michael Frayn’s exhilarating and taxing 1999 novel Headlong. Some passages and plot elements in Theft contain such strong parallels to Headlong that it’s hard to imagine Carey not having had Frayn’s novel, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker prize, now and then in mind. In Headlong, Frayn’s protagonist is an art historian, who believes to have uncovered a Brueghel painting heretofore unattributed to the great Flemish master. In his manic attempts to prove his theory and acquire the painting without letting its owner find out about its supposed great value, he entangles himself in a web of lies, deceit and crime. There is no happy ending in the cards for Frayn’s protagonist, which the author lets us know early. The whole of Headlong pretends to be the protagonist’s own account, including an introduction and an afterword ‘written’ by him.

This is not the case in Theft, although Carey’s novel is similarly transparent as a written artifact. None of the Bones explicitly mentions the writing process, but they both narrate the book (first person narrators, both) and Michael ‘Butcher Bones’ Boone for example frequently employs literary techniques such as foreshadowing or flashbacks, cleanly recognizable as such. The difference between these two set-ups, despite their similarities, closely corresponds to another difference between the two books. Headlong is about art history, it’s a novel as much concerned with the interconnections of archives and memory as with the actual art. Frayn’s readers are treated to extensive lectures on the history of Flemish art, and are offered art as an object, something that you look at from a distance, something to be contextualized. The art history in it is not imaginary, it largely contains knowledge that the reader is also privy to, that he may even know. Departures from that common knowledge and the inventions are meant to create a contrast to the archived bits.

In contrast to that, Peter Carey’s approach is different. He invents everything, the artists, the relevant sections of art history and so on, but more importantly, his protagonist Butcher Bones is not an art historian, he’s an artist, one who used to be quite famous, actually. Released from prison after serving a sentence for burglary he is content to get back to being a painter. His crime was having broken into his old house, now inhabited by his ex-wife, and Butcher Bones attempted to forcibly retrieve some of his own paintings, since “my own best work […] had been declared Marital Assets” (italics his) and had been lost in the ensuing divorce. This crime, as happens a few times in this dense and interlaced novel, already contains in nuce the tensions and questions that preoccupy the whole book: what is the economic and historical relationship of an artist to his work? What happens after a painting is finished, how does it end up in other people’s hands? How does this tie into questions of authorship, ownership and originality? One of the strengths of Theft is that it doesn’t present answers, merely suggestions.

In a patron’s house in a rural area in northern New South Wales, Butcher Bones sets up shop, builds a studio, nails a canvas to a wooden frame, buys colors and starts painting. This whole process is told in admirable detail. Butcher tells us about the types of colors he uses, about the types of nails, screws and wood utilized in his endeavors, but we are never overwhelmed. Instead, he involves us in his art, lets us be part of the small world he constructs in the house he doesn’t own. It’s a bit like listening to the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist (my review here). Unlike Baker’s lonely poet, Butcher’s not alone, he never is, Hugh always accompanies him. Hugh is a bit slow, hence his nickname ‘Slow Bones’. He is obsessed with chairs and quick to wreak violence, with a special predilection for biting fingers. He has trouble reading or understanding maps and is very quickly lost in any kind of urban setting. But his apparent slowness and supposed mental deficiencies are much less pronounced in the book than they seem in this summary.

This is because Hugh and Michael narrate the story in alternating chapters. The chapters don’t overlap, there’s no cute ‘alternative view’ of events. Turns out, Hugh’s part of the narrative is not more obtuse or simple-minded than Michael’s. It’s different, but not in a “slow” way, if anything, it’s more complex and nuanced. Michael’s narration is maudlin, self-obsessed and a bit depressed. He uses low and high brow language both, equally at home in talking about art, talking to buddies or relating “shitty stuff”. These chapters do most to advance the story because they are conventional and told in a linguistically lean way, quickly stringing together events, except for the occasional monologue. Hugh, in contrast, uses a more sophisticated language that contains insights about art, about personal relationships as well as blunt retellings of events. Michael, exasperated over his brother, exclaims once “[w]ho could explain the dark puzzle of Slow Bones’ folded brain?” This sentence, meant to disparage his brother, to show impatience with his being too slow, not functional enough, is, however, revealing and helpful in understanding Hugh and through him, much of Theft.

See, Hugh’s language is much more careful than his brother’s, it displays a much greater awareness of words and syntax. Instead of relating linguistic platitudes like Michael, common in conventional speech, he tends to quote platitudes, not by using inverted commas or other markers (although he does capitalize words now and then, a fact that emphasizes the ‘written’ quality I mentioned earlier), but by speaking/writing in a pastiche of the person, book or statement quoted. Hugh’s chapters are the most fun to read, they are open and almost without guile. Evil and suspicions are quoted, distanced, looked on askance. Now and then he displays cunning, but its never terribly clever. Yet a comparison of Hugh’s and Butcher’s credulity shows us two people almost equally likely to be duped, made fun and taken advantage of. Hugh’s cunning, his naivete and wisdom are not that of how we often suppose the mentally impaired to be, but that of child’s literature. Personally, I’ve long considered the best prose work written for children to have qualities that approaches very good poetry or the work of a writer such as Samuel Beckett.

In all these cases one is likely to find a certain delight in words and an independence of simple conventionalisms, as well as a mixture of lightness and bleakness, which in Beckett’s work is often mistaken for absurdity. I think it’s a paying of close attention to the cog wheels of language, thought and of the structure of images and an awareness of the difficulty of unmooring our actions from conventional patterns and a false implicitness of common sense judgments. Much of that kind of thinking is implicit in those of Theft‘s chapters which are narrated by Hugh. Butcher’s difficult brother has, as Michael said, a “folded brain”. To most readers, this will immediately recall Deleuze’s concept of the fold, elaborated upon specifically in the marvelous book-length essay Le Pli: Leibniz et le baroque (1988) and his book on Foucault (1986). Hugh’s narrative is actually the revealing, clear one, in it you can find the outside and its sounds and shouts folded into his own meandering ruminations. The end result of this is a narrative that seems at times like adult child’s patter, straight out of some strange, slightly surreal tale.

The fact of the matter is, Carey puts quite a strong emphasis on the genres of folk tales, fairy tales and child’s literature. Evidence of this is, for example, his foregrounding of Norman Lindsay’s classic children’s book The Magic Pudding (1918). Several characters in the book self-identify with characters from the book. Hugh especially uses other people’s knowledge of The Magic Pudding as an indicator of their soundness of character and taste, and it should have been a warning to him (and us) when a new acquaintance expresses sympathy for the book’s villains, the pudding thieves. The Magic Pudding is a book about three friends who walk through the world, dining each evening and each morning on a steak-and-kidney pudding which is not only alive, but can also never be depleted. Regularly they are set upon by a pair of pudding thieves, who manage, with the help of trickery and cunning, to steal the pudding a few times. The three friends manage to get them back due to the fact that one among them is equally cunning and devises clever plans to steal the pudding back. The other two then proceed to punch the thieves “on the snout”.

It is significant that Hugh is adamant that he and his brother are “like Barnacle Bill and Sam Sawnoff”, the two punchers of snouts. Clever people around them tend to outwit them and it is pure strength and stubbornness that propels the Bones forward through all the complications, the crimes and the occasional bout of misery. But, unlike Headlong, Theft never really gives in to that misery, the darkness of the noir genre. The subtitle of Carey’s novel is “A Love Story” and, in an oddly satisfying way, it is, in fact, a love story. The love interest here is Marlene, an art connoisseur who’s married to the son of the widow of a famous mid-century artist. In the time-frame of the book, the artist (Leibovitz) is long dead, so is his widow Dominique. Her son, Oliver, has inherited precious little, but one important thing he does own: the right to authorize Leibovitz pictures. He has the right to say which picture is a ‘real Leibovitz’ and which isn’t. The twist is this: Dominique proceeded, immediately after her husband’s death, to hide unfinished canvases, and doctored them later on to make them more expensive. Marlene, an ambitious but provincial woman with a criminal record, refined Dominique’s methods and acquired connections to art dealers all over the globe.

She meets the Bones when she visits the countryside to try and steal a Leibovitz original from one of the Bones’ neighbors. A nimble weaver of intrigues and tricks, she quickly draws the Bones into her machinations, seducing both of them: Michael sexually and Hugh emotionally. As she drags them into her plans, plans that finally result in murder, we can’t help but be fascinated by this amazing woman. Like the pudding thieves, her resources seem endless, her energy and dedication to the task is undeniable. Marlene is not a criminal who happens to do art scams: after decades of doing what she does, she has become a lover of art and an expert not just of the work of Leibovitz, but of modern art in general. Marlene is a self-made woman, an incredibly strong female character and while both narrators have limitations and weaknesses, fixed and slowed down by the narrative attention and tasks, Marlene glides through the story, stronger, and far more magnificent than either of the brothers.

On the one hand, Theft belongs to books like William Gaddis’ momentous The Recognitions. Its treatment of art and originality is rather similarly inspired and strong. There are similarities, too, to noir art tales like Headlong. But the heart of the book is staggeringly different from either of the book. These elements are additional elements on a dish that has a very peculiar, unique taste, because, when you get down to it, the Bones brothers, simple, and successful due to sheer patience and endurance finally seem to represent Australians. Not because Australians are necessarily simple or patient or stubborn, but because at the end, their art is shown to endure. It doesn’t triumph, it doesn’t vanquish other art, but it is equal to other cultural productions. In a way the book mellows out at the end. The first half throws ideas, references and places at us, but as soon as we catch our breath and have caught up with the book, it kind of peters out, but not in a bad way. Peter Carey wrote a book with an Australian story, with Australian means and references, but it’s a book that takes place all over the world, a world that accepts the odd antipodean couple into their midst.

The book (published in 2006) is set in the 1980s, and this historical purview, this gesture towards the archival dimension suggests a broader significance of the story. How far off the mark would it be to read this book, in a way the story of a convict redeeming himself through his own hard, original work, as a metaphor for the rise of the Australian nation? That may be going too far, I don’t know, but fact is, the book’s power is such that this kind of reading might just be possible. Peter Carey is an amazing novelist, if this book is any indication. With a frightful ease he weaves different, disparate threads together to weave a distinctly Australian story that has meaning and relevance for all his readers, and his prose is never less than superb and controlled. Read this book.

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