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 interestingby William Skidelsky / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…