Nothing novel

New York author Paul Auster’s latest work tells an uplifting tale about modern American lives—which may help explain why it’s not terribly interesting
November 17, 2010
Sunset Park by Paul Auster, Faber (£16.99)

A somewhat idealised view of the artistic calling has long been a cornerstone of Paul Auster’s fiction. In this sense, his 16th novel doesn’t break the mould. Sunset Park centres on four characters in their late twenties who spend a brief period living together in a squat in the eponymous Brooklyn neighbourhood. All are creatively inclined: one is a part-time jazz drummer who also owns a hole-in-the-wall repair shop, the lyrically named Hospital for Broken Things; another is a depressed, sexually frustrated painter who spends much of her time working on drawings based on scenes from pornographic magazines; a third is writing her doctoral thesis on American gender relations.

But it is the squat’s late-arriving fourth occupant, Miles Heller, who turns out to be the real mover and shaker. Despite being exceptionally attractive and intelligent, Miles has, since he was a teenager, lived a solitary, nomadic life, estranged from his parents, taking meaningless blue-collar jobs where he finds them, only allowing himself one hobby—reading. All this, we learn, is his self-imposed penance for having inadvertently caused the death, 12 years earlier, of his stepbrother Bobby in a road accident. Miles’s Zen-like existence is evoked in hackneyed terms: we learn that he has “pared down” his desires, that he has no “burning ambitions,” that he has learned to live in the “here and now.” But there are signs that he is ready to resume a more normal life. For one thing, he has fallen in love with a Cuban schoolgirl he met in Florida, at whose urging he practices safe sex by penetrating not her “mommy hole” but her “funny hole.” And although his relocation to New York is prompted partly by the need to flee the retribution of her family (she is underage), it is also motivated by a desire to re-establish contact with his parents.

The novel’s action takes place over a few weeks in late 2008 and 2009, a time that resonates with its themes of collapse, abandonment and tentative recovery. In the wake of the financial crisis, America has become a country full of empty houses like the one the four main characters occupy; while in Florida, Miles was working in “home preservation,” clearing out abandoned subprime properties to prepare them for a quick resell. The economic backdrop also reflects the novel’s interest in questions of moral value: the need to distinguish between things that are genuinely important and mere junk. In this respect, the Hospital for Broken Things is a not unobvious metaphor: a place where objects cast off by society can be lovingly restored. The Brooklyn squat performs a similar role for the characters: in it, they can learn to take themselves seriously, and discover their place in the world.

As this precis suggests, the story that Sunset Park tells is essentially optimistic. It is hard to object to anything the novel says about contemporary America or life in general. But a novel that contains nothing objectionable is also likely to be bland and that, unfortunately, is one of the main failings of Sunset Park. Conflict is the engine of fiction, but here mostly it’s absent. None of the characters differ fundamentally from any of the others; they are all in agreement on life’s important questions. Even Miles’s parents turn out to be arty types who sympathise with the younger characters.

If a novel’s themes and protagonists don’t provide reason enough to read it, one might find consolation in two other areas: plot and writing. Plot has always been one of Auster’s strengths. He is an expert constructor of fiction, with a flair for pacy narrative matched by his skill at incorporating metafictional and self-referential elements into his work. But Sunset Park doesn’t provide much of a canvas for these abilities. It is all too small-scale, too slight. And for reasons known only to him, Auster has decided to serve the story straight, without the usual embellishments. One wonders whether this has anything to do with the critical drubbing he has received for his recent over-reliance on postmodern trickery. Who knows? But what is clear is that in Sunset Park he has swung dramatically in the other direction. Unfortunately, reading a realist novel by Auster is a bit like being served a plate of spaghetti bolognese without parmesan. One looks round anxiously for the waiter bearing cheese.

Nor is the prose any help. Auster has never been an ambitious stylist, but at least in many previous novels the writing had a certain mesmerising efficiency—one thinks of the descriptions of New York in City of Glass, or of silent movies in The Book of Illusions. In Sunset Park, arresting passages do occur—such as a scene outlining the creative travails of the porn-inspired artist, whose work seems surprisingly engaging. But much of the writing is slipshod, perfunctory. There are energy-sapping digressions about obscure baseball lore and old Hollywood movies. Several pages are inexplicably devoted to the imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiabo. Clichés mount prodigiously, as in the following sentence, taken from the notebook of Miles’s father, an eminent publisher: “Still and all, it was a miraculous occasion, and the boy is so earnestly repentant that you would have to be made of stone not to want a new chapter to begin.” Sloppiness intrudes in other ways too. When Miles’s 16-year-old girlfriend pitches up in Brooklyn, she is treated as if she would be underage there as well, even though the age of consent in New York is a year lower than in Florida.

It would be possible to dismiss Sunset Park as nothing more than a blip, an unsuccessful experiment by an otherwise first-rate writer, were it not for the fact that Auster’s other recent novels have been such disappointments too. One is tempted to wonder whether the Hospital for Broken Things carries out literary repairs. If it did, this book would surely find a home there.