Man Without Ambition

Man Without Ambition

Paul Auster’s new novel is the perfect example of thoroughly enjoyable sloppy writing.

Paul Auster is a paradox for the critic. You want to like him; perhaps you do like him. But you’d draw a line under the moment you finish reading,telling yourself you’d rather not write about the book. Dear reader and critic,you betray a tenderness towards the latest Auster that you’d rather protect from that hammer at the back of your mind. At least,your nose for what reads well and what’s structured well — the music and the logic that constitute writing —smells a rat or two even as your reading eye finds nothing amiss. Paul Auster,with the growing distance between him and his early work,has become the perfect example of thoroughly enjoyable sloppy writing.

The last time Auster both wrote well and entertained was Man in the Dark (2008). Thereafter,Invisible (2009) and now Sunset Park show how the writing’s got clumsier but the external stimuli that move Auster are more tangibly definable. Sunset Park is Auster’s credit crisis,foreclosure,recession opus. The spotlight moves over multiple characters,with the centrality of one — Miles Heller,once of the wealthy middle class; his father Morris Heller is a well-known publisher. Now,Miles photographs the “innumerable cast-off things left behind by the departed families” in homes seized by the banks. Miles works for Dunbar Realty,which is “trashing out” the abandoned houses in Florida; but while his co-workers clean and steal (the good stuff that by law should be returned to the families cast out),Miles — Auster’s aesthetically sensitive protagonist — clicks pictures for himself,pictures of no utilitarian value,to “document the last,lingering traces of those scattered lives”. He quit Brown University and fled home,not returning in seven years,carrying within himself the guilt of feeling responsible for his half-brother Bobby’s death. Miles knows he’s lucky to have a job,although he has steadily curtailed his desires. Approaching asceticism or universalisation of poverty? Anyway,Miles the literature lover,allows himself one luxury — buying books and his digicam. He is a man without ambition.

Reading The Great Gatsby in a park one day,he sees 17-year-old Pilar Sanchez,“a small adolescent girl wearing tight,cut-off shorts,sandals,a skimpy halter top”,a few feet away,reading the same book. We’re reminded repeatedly how intelligent she is for her age (Auster certainly is within his

authorial rights not to trust the reader with figuring that out for herself,albeit it’s unkind to his


narrative and style). But she is “no more than a baby”,still underage. Auster mutes the disturbing,faint echoes of Lolita,showing how Miles and Pilar find love,sans guilt — we’ve seen this as recently as in Invisible in the incest between Adam Walker and his sister,which leaves him with no guilt,

although the sister would disagree later. Nevertheless,Miles soon flees Florida as Pilar’s oldest sister —who had earlier

allowed him to bribe her with stolen goods — threatens to report him to the police.

The place that he ends up in,with $3,000 in his pocket,is rundown Sunset Park in Brooklyn,to which we’ve already been introduced through other characters — Alice Bergstrom,pursuing a doctorate on William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (thus Auster’s discourse on another important film),struggling to cope with a sudden downturn in her affair with an aspiring novelist; Ellen Brice,reluctant real estate agent,actually an artist,whose life had changed at 20 when she aborted her baby after a loveless affair with a 16-year-old boy; and Bing Nathan,confused about his sexual identity,failing with women,dumped by his girlfriend,attracted to Miles. The three are illegally squatting in an abandoned house since none is in a position to pay rent,ignoring notices to vacate the premises. Pilar pays Miles a visit too,later. The title of the book and the neighbourhood evoke America’s time of day: twilight. Miles will have a mixed reconciliation with his parents; Alice will get her PhD but lose her boyfriend; Ellen will sketch every bit of the human body and make love to her once underage boy,now handsome and adult; Bing will figure himself out a little better. Miles,the cleverest of the lot,however,may still have to run from himself.

Morris Heller,Miles’ publisher father,is the focus of what Auster chooses to study the financial effects of the recession on — the publishing business. Morris’s chat with his Jewish-American writer friend,Renzo Michaelson (modelled in part on Philip Roth),highlights the illusion that sustains him: “last year,they published forty-seven books,this year thirty eight… it’s a rough time for first novels,very rough”. Morris should know this won’t bring him out of the meltdown. In fictionalising America since 2008,Auster covers most literary bases. Yet,surely there was then,and there is still,more to the meltdown than the impact on publishing,notwithstanding Auster’s socio-humanitarian concerns for those who lost their homes?

There’s every bit of the standard intertextuality,literary homages and overt aesthetic-sexual preoccupations of characters in Sunset Park. But one’s left in the end looking for a break from the oppressive sense of repeated contrivance and determinedly artificial narrative compartments. If this is Auster’s late style,he’ll have to work harder to counterpoint his stronger,subtler,neater works such as The

New York Trilogy or even Brooklyn Follies (2005) — more heart to imagining characters,fewer coincidences in plot,cutting down on over-explicating adjectives and adjectival uses (those never make for good writing),more precision in diction and syntactical engineering. “Baseball is a universe as large as life itself” — even the flunkies in Creative Writing 101 will do better than that.

Chances are,you’ll still enjoy Sunset Park. If for nothing else then for your love of Auster,and the memory of what you’ve read earlier. He contemplates and writes the gigantic world disorder of our day and lights up his altar to literary past masters. Maybe,in an awkward age for the novel’s future — and even that of mainstream criticism itself — we ought to be less harsh on the didactic and demonstrative instinct in the novelist?