Paul Auster is perhaps the most accessible writer of those considered to be part of the “high establishment.” And you know the echelon I mean—Roth, Morrison, DeLillo, McCarthy, etc. Yet his new novel, which comes out today, is too accessible, toeing a dangerous line somewhere between the inventive plots of Jonathan Lethem (one of Auster’s own protégés) and the facile sentences of Dan Brown.
In Sunset Park, Auster plays with multiple perspectives. The entire book is told in third-person narration, with each section limited to the mind of a different character. (Except for a strange few pages of diary entries, for which Auster steals the “you” narration from his own previous novel, Invisible. It worked better then.)
The story is about four young people—Miles, Bing, Alice and Ellen—squatting illegally in an abandoned Brooklyn home. But all characters are not equal; the protagonist is clearly Miles, with whom the book opens and closes. It is only Miles whose family drama features prominently. His father, a distinguished book publisher, and his mother, a famous stage actress, are central characters.
The story itself is original and could be charming, but Auster bungles it repeatedly with trademark overwriting and bizarre propaganda for the PEN American Center (of which he is the vice president). When stepbrother Bobby complains about Miles and insults his father, it’s a “rancorous spew of invective.” As Miles listens in on a conversation about himself, he concludes, “They were chopping him into pieces, dismembering him.” It’s all a bit much.
When Bing Nathan considers moving into the Sunset Park house, Auster claims the thought is “emitting a shower of mental sparks that surrounded him like a magnetic field.” It’s a sentence that a creative writing student might come up with.
The same issue damages the dialogue. Auster seems to have left in every modifier he can come up with. Where was the editing? When father Morris and stepmother Willa discuss the sad change they’ve noticed in Miles, Willa declares: “I shudder to think about the future.” Morris then reminds her that Miles was raised by a nanny, describing the nanny thusly: “Edna Smythe, the luminous, legendary Edna Smythe.” Normal human beings don’t talk like this. That clause with “the luminous, legendary” would make sense in a written description, but not in what’s meant to be spoken dialogue. It reminded me of something B.R. Myers wrote in his now infamous 2001 “Reader’s Manifesto.” Quoting one of the worst bits of dialogue from Don DeLillo’s White Noise (a character asks her husband “What are the people like? Do the women wear plaid skirts, cable-knit sweaters? Are the men in hacking jackets? What’s a hacking jacket?”), Myers points out, “No real person would utter those last two questions in sequence.”
When Miles returns to New York from Florida, the story heats up and for nearly a hundred pages there isn’t much to complain about. Auster takes quite a while to settle into his own story, but once he does, it’s worthwhile. The man knows how to spin a good yarn. The book’s emotional core is the pain that the past has wrought on Miles and his father, but the other Sunset Park squatters are likeable enough to be compelling as well—though Ellen is a far stronger female character than Alice.
Bing, meanwhile, runs a repair shop called “The Hospital of Broken Things,” which just as easily could have been the title of the novel. The characters are the broken things, and it is each one’s inner turmoil that gives the plot strength—each of the squatters has experienced, and is gradually dealing with, their own personal pain.
Pain, both of love and of loss, is a subject that brings out Auster’s best writing. A funeral scene midway through is especially moving; the brother of the deceased “performs an unaccompanied, dirgelike rendition of a Cole Porter song… that is so drastically slowed down, so drenched in melancholy, so painful to listen to that most of the gathering is in tears by the time he comes to the end.”
The book’s worst offense, for me, was the presence of a 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives, running through the plot more like a red herring than a finely woven thread. The movie is not merely mentioned, but parsed to the point of absurdity by the characters, each of whom loves it or hates it or happens to have just watched it for the first time. The movie must be a favorite of Auster’s. On more than one occasion, pages upon pages are devoted to detailing the plot, characters, and even personal histories of the actors. But a veteran scribe like Auster ought to know that even in a novel, and even to the end of making an elaborate analogy, there are some conversations between fictional characters that need not be recorded so dutifully.
The obsession devoted to the movie is another sign of Auster’s lack of restraint. His rampant zeal is indulged again when, after many months apart, Miles’ girlfriend Pilar (with whom he is only allowed to have anal sex, by the way) visits New York.
Recounting their fun as though it were the catalogue of battle heroes in The Iliad, Auster repeats the phrase “the joy of” 36 consecutive times. Only twelve pages later, he does it again in Ellen’s section. As she paints nude figures and ponders anatomy, the phrase “the human body” begins 21 sentences in a row.
There are other similar gimmicks, but the plot takes over, as it does with so many Auster books, and distracts the reader from the novel’s flaws. Once Miles reunites with his parents, the story strengthens for a number of reasons, the best of which is a surprising, plausible disruption in Morris’ second marriage, caused by infidelity.
For those that don’t mind a little cheese with their whine, the corny PR for the PEN organization and the overwritten descriptions will not be enough to ruin a heartfelt story pulsing with well-sketched characters. And although the book’s signoff is a two-page, single-sentence crescendo that seems to be shooting for Ulysses greatness (“yes I said yes I will Yes”), and even though that final sentence mentions that freaking movie yet again, we are left feeling good about the time spent, and missing Miles Heller.