Sunset Park, by Paul Auster, Faber, RRP£16.99,320 pages
Miles Heller works for the “home preservation” branch of Dunbar Realty Corporation in Florida, a company that clears out foreclosed homes for repossession by the bank. Unlike his co-workers, who help themselves to “the objects, the forgotten possessions, the abandoned things”, Miles only wants to photograph the left-behind television sets and electric mixers – objects he feels are “calling out to him, speaking in the voices of the people who are no longer there”.
At 28 years old, Miles, an attractive college drop-out with a mysterious past, is “content to remain in the present”; he doesn’t care about money, or the future, or anything, in fact, apart from photography, novels and his Cuban girlfriend Pilar, whom he met when they were both reading The Great Gatsby in a park. At first, Miles worried about Pilar being 12 years his junior and technically underage; the first time they made love, Pilar, confused about contraception, told Miles that he could not enter her “mummy hole”. Now however, he “is a prisoner of her ardent young mouth” and is “at home in her body, and if he ever finds the courage to leave, he knows he will regret it to the end of her days”.
Auster forgives Miles this aberration: “Note here for the record that he is not someone with a special fixation for young girls,” he writes, explaining that Miles loves Pilar for “the flame of life within her”. Miles, we soon realise, is the picture of the artist as a young man – an unsettled, charismatic genius with a troubled history. For years, he has been fleeing his publisher father and actress mother out of guilt over the accidental death of his half-brother Bobby; soon, when Pilar’s older sisters threaten to report him to the police for having relations with a minor, he is forced to move on once again. “There is no alternative,” Auster states, as if defending the plausibility of this plot device. Miles’s only solution is to return to the city of his past, New York, where he settles into a dilapidated squat with old friend Bing Nathan in the remote Brooklyn neighbourhood of Sunset Park.
Certain themes – broken homes, disrepair, abandonment and fragmentation – are not so much recurring as relentless in this novel, in which every character and event is seen through the same sentimental lens. Bing Nathan is “the militant debunker of contemporary life who dreams of forging a new reality from the ruins of a failed world”, and runs a repair shop for typewriters called The Hospital for Broken Things in the literary quarter of Park Slope (Auster’s own neighbourhood). Alice Bergstrom, another squatter, is researching a dissertation on films made between 1945 and 1947 that feature family breakdowns – cue long passages that read rather like Wikipedia entries. Ellen Brice, the house’s third resident, works in real estate but is also a painter, although she senses that as an artist she “has booked herself into a corner by pursuing a single idea, and that idea isn’t strong enough to bear the weight of what she has been trying to accomplish”.
As one might expect from Auster, whose prolific and uneven work is characterised by the trope of writers writing about writing, all the characters in Sunset Park are forgiven for their familiar sins, providing they are artists. (Alice receives approval for working for PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Program, where Auster is vice-president; Miles’s father gets special mention for being a publisher who himself features in his authors’ books.) Auster is forgiving, too, of his own weaknesses as a writer; rather than search for new phrases, he hoards his favourite old ones in teetering lists. The resulting prose is heightened but approximate; like the lengthily described Florida sun, it “does not illuminate things but obscures them – blinding you with its constant, overbright effulgences, pounding on you with its blasts of vaporous humidity, destabilising you with its miragelike reflections and shimmering waves of nothingness”.