By Paul Auster
Sunset Park is Paul Auster's 14th novel - at least if you count The New York Trilogy as a single work. Those who are familiar with Auster's oeuvre will be accustomed to an idiosyncratic mixture of influences from the realms of American fiction and European philosophy, as the tropes of genre fiction are entangled with the influence of postmodern thinkers and writers. Lacanian psychoanalysis meets and marries hard-boiled crime fiction, while the ascetic flatness of the nouveau roman is tinged with Brooklyn grit. But this new book is more conventional: longer on plot and characterisation, and a good deal shorter on postmodern trickery than much of his previous work.
The storyline is relatively uncomplicated, especially compared to Auster's previous narratives. Miles Heller, 28 years old, is working for a Florida company that "trashes out" the belongings left behind when individuals and families abandon their homes under the threat of foreclosure. It's just another in the series of dead-end jobs that he has held since dropping out of an elite east coast university.
Miles's life is a slow-motion catastrophe, an extended voyage into the soft squalor of menial work and anonymous apathy. He experienced
a childhood trauma involving the death of a stepbrother, which in turn eventually led to estrangement from his culturally high-flying parents and the abandonment of his education. When the novel opens, he has recently fallen in love with a 17-year-old high-school student named Pilar Sanchez.
When one of Pilar's sisters attempts to blackmail him, Miles flees from Florida and moves to New York in order to lie low until his girlfriend comes of legal age. He settles into a squat supervised by one of his childhood friends, Bing Nathan, the drummer in a grungy local band and proprietor of a shop devoted to repairing obsolete objects such as rotary telephones and manual typewriters.
The squatted house in question is located in the western, Sunset Park neighbourhood of Brooklyn, a downmarket district a few subway stops away from the high rents of the hyper-prosperous areas, in what is now known as Brownstone Brooklyn. Despite its multicultural mix, Sunset Park is a dreary place, full of "warehouses, factories, abandoned waterfront facilities . . . biker bars, cheque-cashing places, Hispanic restaurants, the third-largest Chinatown in New York, and the four hun-dred and seventy-eight acres of Green-Wood Cemetery".
The remainder of the novel, which shifts perspective to identify with a different character in each section, deals with the vicissitudes in the lives of Miles and his squat-mates as they attempt to develop their ambitions and their loves. Miles's resumption of his relationships with both of his parents and with Pilar plays out against Bing's efforts to maintain the idealistic, countercultural dream embodied by the squat. Another of the residents, Alice Bergstrom, is trying to finish her doctorate in English at Columbia just as her own relationship with an egotistical writer boyfriend starts to wane. Likewise, Ellen Brice, a real-estate agent and would-be artist, is struggling with aesthetic dissatisfaction and an overpowering sexual frustration.
Although Sunset Park is formally less playful than Auster's earlier postmodernist metafictions, with their Robbe-Grillet-style effects, it nevertheless subtly resurrects some of the trademark manipulations that have played a central role in the author's work. At one point, Miles's father reminisces about a particularly impressive school essay that his son wrote as a child on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. At the time, he had wondered "how it was possible for a ten- or 11-year-old child to read a book so carefully, to pull together such disparate, unemphasised elements of a story and see a pattern develop over the course of hundreds of pages, to hear the repeated notes, notes so easily lost in the whirl of fugues and cadenzas that form the totality of a book".
Sunset Park is marked by a profusion of such "repeated notes". More than one character has an affair with a lover under the legal age of consent, many have developed parallel fascinations with obscure baseball players of the past, and somehow multiple characters simultaneously but independently become fixated on the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives. Yet ultimately it is hard to know what to make of such doublings. Just because something happens twice does not necessarily render it significant, or even particularly uncanny, especially when the coincidences are so clearly forced into the text by the author.
Given the flatness of the formal effects, the plot alone isn't thick enough to endow Sunset Park with the profundity and interest that we might expect from a writer of Auster's stature. It is refreshing to see him make this timely move past the folds and skips of postmodernism, but what is left after they are gone is underwhelming. In the end, one would be hard-pressed to say more of the book than that it is a light, if entertaining, soap opera of what is left of bohemian New York.
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £16.99
Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in the English department at University College London