Sunset Park by Paul Auster (Henry Holt: 2010) by Susan Scutti
As ever, Paul Auster remains heavily indebted to indirect discourse; he favors a style that views his characters at arms' length, a narration that concentrates more on their inner lives than on their outward actions. His most recent novel, Sunset Park, opens with a description of the occupation and preoccupations of Miles Heller: "For almost a year now, he has been taking photographs of abandoned things." Miles' job is to clean out houses abandoned by those who have either defaulted on their loans or in some other way found continued residence impossible. The result of Auster's distance from Miles' direct speech and actions translates into a kind of underwater feel which is fitting since Miles as well as every other member of Sunset Park's ensemble cast is struggling against powerful currents.
On the surface, Miles' predicament appears to be somewhat self-created. Stopping home while still in college, he overhears his father arguing with his step-mother, a fervid conversation in which they shred Miles' behavior and personality; scorched, he leaves them a note claiming he will be visiting his mother in California, and then he sets off on a private journey refusing to contact any of his parents for seven plus years. Moving from place to place, working odd jobs, he suffers from more than his parents' supposed disapproval. Miles has never revealed to anyone, including the girlfriend he truly loves, that he believes he is responsible for his step-brother's death; arguing, Miles had pushed his brother into the street just before a speeding car turned the corner.
Yet an interpretation of Miles' troubles as self-made becomes questionable upon closer inspection of his parents. Miles' troubles have certainly and inevitably spread to Morris Heller and Mary-Lee Swann, each of whom feels a strong sense of guilt regarding him. This guilt is then complicated by more routine middle-aged discord and disorder caused by general conditions as well as the characters' own human blunders. Morris is finding the financial downturn greatly challenging within his world of book publishing just as his second marriage enters rough terrain due to his wife's discovery of a sexual indiscretion on his part. Similarly, Mary-Lee Swann, an actress, has just begun a new role as the novel begins; she is playing Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days. To add gravitas to her characterization, Mary-Lee has gained weight and this newfound heaviness both reveals and expresses the burden of her unmitigated guilt toward Miles, whom she left in the care of his father while still a baby.
Thus, the themes of abandonment, emotional deficit, and collapse evidenced in Miles' life are further expressed by Auster within the thoughts and circumstances of his parents' existences. And along with the family Heller, Auster similarly paints the only slightly less-troubled housemates collected by Bing Nathan, leader of a squat in Sunset Park, the Brooklyn neighborhood to which Miles returns. Through this set of younger characters, Auster communicates the angst of an entire generation. Bing seeks to forge "a new reality from the ruins of a failed world" and "tangibility," his favorite word, articulates the essence of his crusade. A part-time jazz musician, he is sole proprietor of The Hospital for Broken Things, a storefront enterprise to which customers can bring busted typewriters and faulty radios as well as pictures needing frames (from this latter service, the real money is made). When one member of his squat leaves, Bing invites Miles to take her place. Importantly, Bing has been receiving letters from Miles, his on-the-lam childhood friend, then relaying that information to Morris Heller; in this way, he works to restore one more broken thing, the relationship between father and son.
Another of the squatters, Alice Bergstrom, is a graduate student writing her thesis, the subject of which is America in the years just after World War II. Meanwhile she works part-time at PEN (the organization for poets, publishers, essayists, editors, and novelists) on its "Freedom to Write" program. Meanwhile, Ellen Brice, who also lives in the house in Sunset Park, is an emerging artist working as a realtor; during the course of the novel she surfaces from dull depression, rediscovering the sensual identity she abandoned years ago in the aftermath of an abortion.
Like Miles, then, each member of the squat is involved in some form of reclamation. Yet Auster does not coddle his readers by clearing a path to redemption for each of his characters by novel's end; in this way he suggests the separate and uncertain fate that awaits each, he gestures toward the possibility of a failure to repossess what has been ruined, discarded or lost. Most expressly, he has made them squatters, an apt metaphor for the instability of their home, their world.
A best-selling as well as an award-winning author, Auster nevertheless stumbles upon a few issues of believability in the course of this novel. (Spoiler alert!) The most jarring arrives near the end when Alice's computer comes to harm and therefore her dissertation is lost, years of difficult work gone, "disappeared." I believe most grad students working on a years-long writing project backs up any necessary files on either a disk or a drive. Other aspects of the novel that strain credulity center around the squat itself --- wouldn't the neighbors greet or question the squatters at least once? Within a house requiring continuous repairs, would relations among the residents remain so untangled, so amiable? And don't marshalls perform evictions rather than police officers? Finally, Pilar Sanchez, Miles' girlfriend, is too consistently mature, she is unbelievable in her sexual acquiescence, and she lacks too many of the trappings --- schoolmates, for one --- of someone her age.
Ultimately, these shortcomings cannot dislodge Auster from the psychological edifice he's chosen to build and occupy in these pages. Ranking among the most accomplished of American writers, Auster is, as we are much too frequently told about certain financial institutions (though I mean it here in its most pure sense), "too big to fail." Whether another reader deems this novel one of his more or less successful efforts --- and I would side with the latter opinion --- Sunset Park nevertheless offers a compelling vision of contemporary America after economic catastrophe and constitutes a well worthwhile, if not grand, reading experience.