Paul Auster's new novel Sunset Park is, emphatically, a novel of the "great recession." It's set in 2009 around the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, and it's a novel in which loss is sovereign.
The story begins with a man named Miles Heller, wounded and inclined to silence, who has given up his former life to live in an eccentric orbit of his own, forsaking the New York he knows for a Florida that is treacherous in its decline.
Like any number of Auster's heroes, Miles is fascinated - to the point of near-obsession - with the moment. Not any moment in particular but "the moment," the inescapable is-ness of time. Also like other Auster characters, Miles Heller takes photographs, preserving the chaos and confusion of loss. He works as a trasher-out, someone who cleans up the mess left behind by those who've been evicted from their homes. And he takes photos of the abandoned homes, capturing the signs of despairing flight. Miles is, in fact, taking photographs that reflect his inner turmoil, variations on the moment of his own wounding.
One expects, on first meeting Miles, one of Auster's metaphysically oriented men, one in search of chance and necessity, but though Miles Heller has something of that to him, he is, actually, one of Auster's more compelling characters: young, intelligent, thoughtful and moral. His wound is relatively simple: he feel responsible for the death of his half-brother. And Miles is in love, a state that makes him a compelling witness.
The other main characters are almost as sharply drawn: Morris Heller (Miles's father, a publisher), Mary-Lee Swann (Miles's mother, an actress), Bing Nathan (proprietor of the Hospital for Broken Things), Ellen Brice (an aspiring artist) and Alice Bergstrom (a graduate student). It's one of Auster's strongest casts. Every one of them is struggling with clearly defined aspirations and despair in an America that, so to speak, bares its teeth to its own citizens.
Sunset Park has a simple story. Miles Heller, forced to leave Florida, makes his way back to New York, moving in with three young people who illegally occupy an abandoned house in the neighbourhood known as Sunset Park. Among other things, the novel can be read as the chronicle of a community's rise and fall at a time when communities are disappearing or breaking down all over the United States. But - as with all of Auster's novels - there's more going on beneath the surface.
Auster himself suggests one of the ways to read Sunset Park, while recounting Morris Heller's memory of a book report the young Miles wrote about To Kill a Mockingbird: "[The]young Miles wrote … that wounds are an essential part of life, and until you are wounded in some way, you cannot become a man …"
So … among the repeated notes in Sunset Park: wounds and the human body. In Sunset Park, the body figures in most of its dimensions: as source of pain, pleasure or disgust, as symbol, as theme, as inheritance, heritage and ground. The body is insisted on. The two works of art Auster returns to again and again are The Best Years of Our Lives (a film about traumatized soldiers returning home from war) and Samuel Beckett's Happy Days (a play in which a woman is - by the end of the play - buried up to her neck in sand). The novel is graphically sexual and, more surprisingly, insistently phallic. This is a little bewildering until, as the novel progresses, one comes to accept that, for Auster's characters, the body - in its fragility and strength - is one of the only certainties in a time of increasing darkness. In a way, Sunset Park is Auster's most Whitmanesque novel and it's very entertaining.
A final point: For decades, Auster has written out his fascination for "the moment." This fascination is a near-inevitable concern in his work. (And why not? Only the second-rate don't repeat themselves.) In most of Auster's work, the moment is tragic because irrevocable. Things one would take back cannot be taken back and Auster's characters have had, in their own ways, to deal with the irrevocable. At the end of Sunset Park, however, a new and different note is sounded. While it may not be possible to entirely forget the tragic moment, it is possible to live in the present. Of Miles Heller, Auster writes: "[F]om now on, he tells himself, he will stop hoping for anything and live only for now, this moment, this passing moment, the now that is here and then not here, the now that is gone forever." It's a beautiful way to end a novel about the uncertainty of the "great recession," but more: For those who know Auster's work, who have read it over the years, it's a moving affirmation.
Haruki Murakami writes of Auster that he is "definitely a genius." I think this is wrong, insofar as it suggests near god-like inspiration. Rather, Auster's fiction works by accumulation. It has been patiently accomplished and what I admire in him as a writer is the noble persistence that is, in fact, at the heart of Sunset Park.
Contributing reviewer André Alexis's essay collection, Beauty & Sadness, has just been published.