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My Son, My Son!

Sunset Park

by Paul Auster
Henry Holt, 309 pp., $25.00
Dmitri Kasterine
Paul Auster, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 1987; photograph by Dmitri Kasterine, a selection of whose portraits of writers and artists is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, through April 3, 2011

Of literary genres none has so diversely and so wonderfully flourished in recent decades as the memoir—not the more staid, stately, chronologically determined life-memoir or autobiography but the highly individualized, often short, lyric memoir of crises, of which William Styron’s Darkness Visible (1990), Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) are exemplary; and among these none is more beautifully and succinctly composed than Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude (1982), written after the unexpected death of his father in 1981.

Subsequently, over a career that has included fifteen novels, six works of nonfiction, a collection of poetry, screenplays, and edited books, Paul Auster has become known primarily for his highly stylized, quirkily riddlesome postmodernist fiction in which narrators are rarely other than unreliable and the bedrock of plot is continually shifting. The Invention of Solitude, however, is notable for its frank, candid, understated evocation of filial loss followed not by grief—at least, not conventional grief—but by the numbness of an inability to grieve and the stoic determination to know the elusive, unloved father Samuel Auster—the “invisible” man:

Devoid of passion, either for a thing, a person, or an idea, incapable or unwilling to reveal himself under any circumstances, he had managed to keep himself at a distance from life, to avoid immersion in the quick of things. He ate, he went to work, he had friends, he played tennis, and yet for all that he was not there. In the deepest, most unalterable sense, he was an invisible man.

(Yet a photograph of the deceased Samuel Auster suggests an eerie resemblance to Paul Auster.)

The Invention of Solitude is divided into two thematically symmetrical sections—“Portrait of an Invisible Man” and “The Book of Memory”—that suggest a dialectic as well as a dialogue between the two “Paul Austers”: the one who is the son of the “invisible man” Samuel Auster and the other who is the father of a young son of his own, Daniel. In the first section the author contemplates his father’s death and beyond this, like one peering over an abyss, his father’s mysterious and unknowable life: “I thought: my father is gone. If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.” Like one of his somber detective heroes-to-come in such novels as The New York Trilogy—Auster’s best-known fiction, which reads as if Samuel Beckett were undertaking to refashion one of the more snarled plots of Raymond Chandler—the bereft son explores the large, rather grand if now derelict English Tudor house in a well-to-do suburb of Newark in which his father lived alone for more than fifteen years after the breakup of the Auster family; outwardly impressive, the house is a kind of mausoleum within, a place in which “invisibility” abided.

It is Auster’s hope to reconstruct his absent father’s enigmatic and seemingly entirely self-centered life from an examination of the father’s artifacts—a miscellany of things. And indeed the memoirist does discover astonishing artifacts: a photo album bound in expensive leather with a gold-stamped title on its cover—“This Is Our Life: The Austers”—which is blank inside; newspaper clippings from the early 1900s recounting a lurid family history from when his father was nine years old. The reader is prompted to wonder: was the father’s bemused detachment from life a consequence of this sordid family scandal? Or—more disturbing to consider—did the long-ago incident have little to do with actually forming Samuel Auster’s personality?

In the second, more analytical and speculative section of The Invention of Solitude, “The Book of Memory,” the author speaks of himself as “A.” as he contemplates the paradoxes of memory and the fraught relationships of fathers and sons, sons and fathers; we learn that as a young translator of French poetry and prose, at the start of his writing career, Auster was a disappointment to his father, who’d been a successful—if obsessive, work-addicted—businessman with little sympathy for his son’s preoccupation with literature. (Even the father’s occupation seems symbolic: Samuel Auster owned tenements in an increasingly derelict and dangerous, virtually all-black area of Newark. His work, to which he was addicted, was grinding, unrewarding, and dangerous as well.) With his three-year-old son Daniel, A. takes up the book of Pinocchio, a densely symbolic text exploring the archetypal drama of father-and-son/son-and-father:

This act of saving is in effect what a father does: he saves his little boy from harm. And for [Daniel] to see Pinocchio, that same foolish puppet who has stumbled his way from one misfortune to the next…to become a figure of redemption, the very being who saves his father from the grip of death, is a sublime moment of revelation. The son saves the father. This must be fully imagined from the perspective of the little boy. And this, in the mind of the father who was once a little boy, a son, that is, to his own father, must be fully imagined…. The son saves the father.

As all of Russian literature since Gogol is said to have come out of Gogol’s The Overcoat, so all of Paul Auster’s prose fiction seems to have come out of The Invention of Solitude, from the early New York Trilogy (1985–1986) to the provocatively titled Invisible (2009). Obsessive themes of loss, mystery about whether people actually exist, the instability of identity, and the vicissitudes of chance as well as tales of quixotic quests undertaken by the intense young intellectual men who populate his fiction are suggested in this eloquent memoir, a remarkably accomplished and mature first book with which readers unschooled in the playfulness of metafiction and narrative intertextuality might begin if undertaking to read Auster’s now considerable oeuvre.

In Auster’s new novel, his sixteenth, aptly titled Sunset Park, a tormented and self-exiled son, Miles Heller, returns to New York City to be reconciled with his father, from whom he has been estranged for seven and a half years, with results that are initially promising but soon turn bitterly ironic. The novel is narrated in Auster’s characteristically spare, understated prose, through a chorus of persons who are acquainted with Heller. A brief detour brings us into the PEN American Center office in New York City, where the campaign to free the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is being undertaken by one of the characters in the novel—(with quite admirable results, since the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo is the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize).1 But aside from this campaign there are few distracting postmodernist incursions in this melancholy comedy of naive and unworldly idealists who are defeated by the obdurate reality of contemporary America in its economic, political, and moral decline.

When we first meet him, in the “sprawling flatlands of South Florida” where he’s currently in exile, Miles Heller is a young man of twenty-eight who, for all his intelligence and sensitivity, seems incapable of establishing a place for himself in the adult world. Following the accidental death of his older stepbrother, in which Miles had been involved, he has become a wanderer like the biblical Cain; in the eyes of an admiring friend with whom he has kept in contact over the years, he is a “grief-stricken boy with no illusions, no false hopes”—“only half a person…his life…sundered”—yet:

Miles seemed different from everyone else, to possess some magnetic, animal force that changed the atmosphere whenever he walked into a room. Was it the power of his silences that made him attract so much attention, the mysterious, closed-in nature of his personality that turned him into a kind of mirror for others to project themselves onto, the eerie sense that he was both there and not there at the same time?

Miles is a sympathetic person, not unlike other loner-protagonists in Auster’s fiction, but he seems trapped in a kind of spiritual stasis: he’s a dropout from Brown, has an “addiction” to reading, and sees himself as an enemy of “the system,” yet he lacks ambition and has “no clear idea of what building a plausible future might entail for him.” During his seven and a half years of self-imposed exile he has worked at minimally paying jobs; he has remained estranged from his father and stepmother, who have no idea what his motives are for breaking with them so abruptly. It’s an inspired choice for Auster to place Miles in such desolate and demeaning work for a corporation that clears out “trashed” foreclosed homes after their evicted tenants have departed:

In a collapsing world of economic ruin and relentless, ever-expanding hardship, trashing out is one of the few thriving businesses in the area…. In the beginning, he was stunned by the disarray and the filth, the neglect. Rare is the house he enters that has been left in pristine condition by its former owners. More often there will have been an eruption of violence and anger, a parting rampage of capricious vandalism….

Miles is also a photographer, obsessed by recording “abandoned things”—which is, say, virtually everything he discovers in the bankrupt flatlands of foreclosed Florida. He has amassed an archive of thousands of photographs:

He understands that this is an empty pursuit, of no possible benefit to anyone, and yet each time he walks into a house, he senses that the things are calling out to him, speaking to him in the voices of the people who are no longer there….

Miles is haunted by the memory of his stepbrother’s death, which occurred on a country road in Massachusetts with no witnesses, when the boys were scuffling together and sixteen-year-old Miles unthinkingly shoved his infuriating stepbrother into the path of an oncoming car:

He doesn’t know if Bobby’s death was an accident or if he was secretly trying to kill him. The entire story of his life hinges upon what happened that day in the Berkshires, and he still has no grasp of the truth, he still can’t be certain if he is guilty of a crime or not.

The incursion of chance into our lives is another prevailing theme in Paul Auster’s fiction, and so in Miles’s case his young life as well as that of his family has been irrevocably altered:

Whenever he thinks about that day now, he imagines how differently things would have turned out if he had been walking on Bobby’s right instead of his left. The shove would have pushed him off the road rather than into the middle of it, and that would have been the end of the story, since there wouldn’t have been a story….

Like a Beckett character, if lacking Beckett’s darkly radiant poetry, Miles Heller is absorbed in his dead-end but mesmerizing half-life; he remains haunted by the past he has broken with, and has written fifty-two letters to a friend his age back home, inquiring after his father and stepmother. Like Miles’s own mother, who’d left him and his father when he was very young, Miles is one of the “walking wounded”—“damaged souls”—who can be wakened from his trance only by a kind of counterenchantment.

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    Paul Auster is a vice-president of the PEN American Center. 

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