Every time I read Auster's novels I feel as though he is just sat in a room writing constantly and the finished product simply falls from his hands, without him even really noticing, and is somehow published. They are so completely tied up with obsession and an alarmingly exact anchoring on minute detail. His latest offering, Sunset Park, which I picked up in Belgium this Summer (and subsequently saw advertised in Grazia as an impressive alternative to beach chick-lit, something "to leave popping out the top of your bag", presumably with which to impress well toned, oiled men?) is no different.
This is the story of thirty-something Miles who has systematically ran away from his home, past and parents since the (mostly) accidental death of his step-brother and ended up cleaning up repossessed homes in Miami, taking photos of the debris and dirty protests left behind when a life is taken in place of a loan. In Florida, his life begins to transform as he falls in love with an exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally young (illegally so) Cuban girl named Pila.
As the story unfolds, Miles finds himself back in his hometown of New York, squatting facing a graveyard and falteringly attempting to contact his estranged parents whilst they, all the time aware of his proximity, wait for the impending explosion when he finally does speak to one of them.
This is all I know so far of the major plot, which may not necessarily even be the major plot (I seriously doubt in Auster there ever is really one), because that is all I have read. But the thing that I have picked up on most in this book is the slight return to Auster's earlier (more postmodern) style. The characters are separated by chapters which read like small Freudian reports of their subconsciousness, particularly the sections considering Ellen, a woman completely obsessed with the human body, touch and the impossibility of existence. After we are introduced to each of the major players in turn, an introduction which consumes the best part of the novel, a chapter labelled 'ALL' appears. And in this, as one would expect, the narrative winds together harmoniously to form a comprehensive cross-city story. But it is here where relationships begin to crumble, characters unexpectedly and unknowingly abandon one another and where the theatricality and actedness of communal existence is thoroughly exposed. The sentences become repetitive, stuttered and list-like, the images (like those Ellen continual, obsessively fills her sketch books with) flick past the readers eyes faster and faster until each person bleeds into one. One neurotic, stunted entity. This is not a writer giving up the end of his book, but one illustrating the absurdity of the earlier parts. It does not matter what is contained within each of his characters, as they will inevitably all become one, but never be united/ The only place these people can truly exist alongside one another is in this novel, in theatricality and make-believe.
This concept is particularly underlined by Auster's use of other media, such as his continual mention of the film The Best Years of Our Lives, which deals with the helplessness felt by the soldiers returning home from war and the frustration which this created for their families. His choice to have Miles' mother act in Beckett's misleadingly titled play Happy Days structures the framing of this as a tale of hopelessness communal living and solitude. Solitude is a big deal for Auster, but only solitude as experienced amongst others. In his other novels, when characters run away to the woods or commit suicide, they leave the narrative. He is not interested in what the person alone feels, only what the lonely person feels when he is surrounded. It is when he is in the city- whether he is grasping at people from behind the lens of a camera, via acts of terrorism and vandalism, or through his own novels- that the protagonist comes alive for Auster. This is why spies, those who wear disguises, vigilantes and artists so intrigue him. They are all people who rely on the existence of others in order to survive. Their living is made from the destruction, depiction and documentation of others, and of some form of communal life.
Know the feeling...