Faber & Faber, £16.99, 311pp, £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Sunset Park, By Paul Auster
Too many brief encounters in Brooklyn
Friday 29 October 2010
I think my old man cycle is over," Paul Auster reflected last year, on the publication of Invisible. Its twentysomething protagonist marked a departure from Auster's recent wave of old, doleful male characters. Sunset Park continues on this youthful trajectory, featuring four middle-class friends stranded in early adulthood in the present, post-credit crunch era, and squatting in a dowdy end of Brooklyn.
Their lives do not trace the innocence of youth, as Adam Walker's did in Invisible, but the stinging disappointments and unrealised ambitions of their tender age. Miles Heller is the son of a New York publisher earning his keep as a "trash-out" worker on foreclosed homes in Florida to escape his dark past. Bing Nathan is lonely, overweight and sexually confused. Ellen Brice's vocation as an artist is derailed by having to earn a living as a real-estate agent, and Alice Bergstrom is a doctoral student struggling to accept the compromises in her once vigorous relationship.
Yet there is something profoundly jarring in the book's tone. Even as the characters are shown attempting to kick-start their adult lives, their stories – written in the present tense for amplified immediacy - appear to be narrated by someone assuming a youthful ventriloquism, but not quite pulling it off. Miles's illegal love of his girlfriend, Pilar Sanchez, who has not yet reached the age of consent, is the most problematic. While it sees him fleeing Florida for fear of being caught and imprisoned, their love is presented as equal and upstanding. She might only be a high-school student but she is terribly mature for her age, the reader is repeatedly told.
However, when Miles first sees this beautiful young stranger sitting in a park, he describes his stirrings in the leering tone of a modern Humbert Humbert meeting his Lolita: "He guessed that she was even younger than sixteen, just a girl, really, and a little girl at that, a small adolescent girl wearing tight, cut-off shorts, sandals, and a skimpy halter top...No more than a baby, he said to himself." It is courageous of Auster to grapple with the disjuncture between how the world might view their illicit love and how it is felt, between them, to be wholesome.
In some ways, this follows on from his emotional investigations of illicit love in the form of incest in Invisible, when Adam embarks on a sexual relationship with his sister, Gwyn - again described in guilt-free terms.
Sadly, none of the relationships in Sunset Park is investigated in their full psychological complexity. Auster seems satisfied to stop at legitimising Miles and Pilar, and outlining the free-floating and experimental nature of youthful sexuality, rather than delving further.
Just as Auster's 2005 picaresque novel, Brooklyn Follies, captured the intersecting lives of a neighbourhood in the more affluent district of Park Slope, this novel offers another slice of Brooklyn life from the more diverse socio-economic district of Sunset Park. It stands accused of similar simplifications, particularly in its presentation of ethnic difference. Pilar's Cuban family consists of a brood of siblings with a domineering oldest sister at its helm; a bus ride across America clarifies the country to be a place of the "wheezing black woman, a sniffing Indian or Pakistani man, a bony, throat-clearing white woman of eighty and a coughing German tourist". Yet the multiculturalism is barely fleshed out beyond the briefest of pen-portraits.
Most disappointingly, Auster's writing appears bland, even clumsy, at times: "Baseball is a universe as large as life itself", he writes in one forced metaphor, "and therefore all things in life, whether good or bad, whether tragic or comic, fall within its domain." Miles's fate is summed up in over-familiar language: "Just another roll of the dice, then, another lottery pick scooped out of the black metal urn, another fluke in a world of flukes and endless mayhem."
Ellen's ruminations on life and art, meanwhile, verge on the facile: "The human body is strange and flawed and unpredictable. The human body has many secrets, and it does not divulge them to anyone, except those who have learned to wait." We end up caring about the lives of the four central characters enough to want to know their outcome, but it is a shame they appear to have been so hastily imagined.
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