Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Paul Auster, _Sunset Park_

ONLY RECENTLY LEARNED that Auster was born in Newark -- he grew up in South Orange, but was born in the same city as Philip Roth, nearly a generation later (1933, 1947). As they happen to be two of my favorite writers, I tried to think of other shared traits -- both Jewish, both like to work with a limited palette of favorite themes, both (of late) very regularly productive, with a new novel every fall -- that was about as far as I got, however.

Sunset Park has its share of Austerian themes: Brooklyn, the books and arts world, ruptures between fathers and sons, secret wounds and long lingering guilt, unusual photography projects, bumbling visionaries, the amazing woman whose love might set everything right... and I could continue. But the narration is a departure, for him. Auster almost always uses first-person narration. The only recent exceptions to this rule are Travels in the Scriptorium, his parable-novella about his own career, and Timbuktu, whose protagonist was a dog; before that, you'd have to go all the way back to The Music of Chance and New York Trilogy.

And not only do we have third-person narration, but we have it from a variety of points of view, not only that of Miles Heller, a classic Auster under-a-cloud literary loner, but also those of his father, his mother, and the other 20-somethings with whom he shares a Brooklyn squat. Lots of novels uses multiple p.o.v.'s, but I don't think Auster has written one before.

This development has at least a couple of noteworthy consequences. One, while the style is still mostly lean, it's more relaxed, a little more writerly, more exploratory. Since Auster is rendering a character's consciousness, not what he or she might utter or write down, the sentences get longer, more meandering. The focus shifts, the course changes; sometimes the sentences are so full of detail they become virtual catalogues. For instance, Miles's father, Morris, at one low point imagines becoming an alter ego he calls the "Can Man," whose life is imagined in a sentence that runs the bottom of p 178 to the bottom of p. 180. An excerpt:

...in his mind the Can Man is a Mohawk Indian, a descendant of the Mohawks who settled in Brooklyn in the early part of the last century, the community of Mohawks who came here to become construction workers on the tall buildings going up in Manhattan, Mohawks because for some reason Mohawks have no fear of heights, they feel at home in the air and were able to dance along the beams and girders without the slightest dread or vertiginous wobble, and the Can Man is a descendant of those fearless people who built the towers of Manhattan, a crazy customer, alas, not quite right in the head, a daft old loon who spends his days pushing his shopping cart through the neighborhood, collecting the bottles and cans that will fetch him five cents apiece, and when the Can Man speaks, more often than not he will punctuate his remarks with absurd, outlandishly inappropriate advertising slogans....

And that's only about a sixth of it. Has Auster ever resorted to a two-page sentence before? It's not his characteristic mode, certainly. A new trick for an old dog? I found myself enjoying it, actually.

The other noteworthy consequence is that the novel does not have the claustrophobic, walls-closing-in feel that Auster is so good at rendering as his main character runs out of options. That unfinished story-within-a-story in Oracle Night, of the character locked in the archive, is quintessential Auster. But in a novel with more than one point of view, the reader does not (thankfully, perhaps) have the same sense of foreclosed possibilities.

As the novel opens, Miles Heller has been out of touch with his parents for more than seven years, indirectly as a consequence of his feelings of guilt over his role in a stepbrother's fatal accident, which he has kept secret since the accident occurred in his early teens. Having dropped out of Brown after his junior year, he has been living nomadically and scratching out a marginal existence. He is living in Florida, holding down a job cleaning out foreclosed homes, when he meets and falls in love with a high school student, Pilar Sanchez. This sets in motion events that take him back to New York City. Living in dodgy circumstances in a squat, he reunites with his parents, resolves to go back to work on his degree, and plans to marry Pilar, who has won a scholarship to Columbia, once she turns eighteen. Despite some ominous moments, everything is coming up roses -- then, in the novel's closing pages, catastrophe descends. In the final sentences, Miles is headed out of town, on the lam after having assaulted a police officer, everything lost...

... but since Miles's perspective is not the only one allowed in the novel, you wonder if everything is really as lost as it seems to him. By including other consciousnesses than his, the novel has more room in it, room enough perhaps for him eventually to realize he need not flee. The ending is far from hopeful, but the narrative structure of this novel conveys that there is always more going on than Miles knows, so the loss and desperation of the final pages do not seem utterly final.

1 comment:

Escape from Sunset Park said...

what an awful book. written in childlike form (i guess since in painting i prefer rembrandt to pollock, i'm not ready for simplistic writing either) . i finished it in 3 hours! i never felt the need or desire to dwell on an image or a character. folks say auster is a prolific writer - i can see why, he doesn't weave a pattern, he provides lists of facts, no intricate story with plot lines that all pay off in the end. it is like reading a cookbook. most of the book is just the listing of recipes for 4 or 5 meals. it is boring. only towards the end was i at all provoked to be interested - it was like - "now here is how the food tastes when it comes out of the oven". but it wasn't good enough to satisfy me. and also, if you're going to use "facts" in your work of fiction - keep them accurate and not stereotyped misconceptions about the Sunset Park community from elitist Park Slopers. I wish the novel used "unnamed neighborhood in unnamed big city" as its locale.