The World According to Paul Auster

October 30, 2010

“Nabokov once said ‘I divide literature into two categories, the books I wish I had written and the books I have written,’” Umberto Eco once wrote in the pages of The Paris Review. “In the former category I would put books by Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Paul Auster.”

To which I must say: “Amen,” although I have to say that I would add Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Mordecai Richler to the list.

Eco’s remarks help us understand why Paul Auster – novelist, poet, screenwriter, and cultural observer – is best described as a writer’s writer. His books are sometimes to be found on best-seller lists, but they are even more often cited and praised by other writers of distinction. Auster is always accessible and readable, but he is also a superb literary stylist, an author who is capable of extracting poetry from the hard facts of life, no matter how sad or sordid they may be.

The latest example of Auster’s genius is “Sunset Park” (A Frances Coady Book/Henry Holt: $25.00), a novel that was written in and about the elevator-drop economy of 2008. And yet, like all of his work, humankind rather than the Dow-Jones average is the measure of all things in the world according to Auster.

“The human body is strange and flawed and unpredictable,” muses one of the characters in “Sunset Park.” “The human body has many secrets, and it does not divulge them to anyone, except those who have learned to wait. The human body cannot exist with other human bodies.”

The book opens on a mysterious young man named Miles Heller whose job is “trashing out” abandoned homes in Florida.  “Each house is a story of failure,” writes Auster, “and he has taken it upon himself to document the last, lingering traces of those scattered lives in order to prove that the vanished families were once here, that the ghosts of people he will never see and never know are still present in the discarded things strewn about their empty houses.”

Precisely the same description can be applied to Auster’s narrative technique in “Sunset Park.” As the author’s eye wanders across the urban landscape of contemporary America — a publishing house in Greenwich Village, a band of squatters in Brooklyn, an aging actress in California exile who aspires to return to the New York stage — Auster is gathering the fragments of a shattered family and assembling them into a rich biographical mosaic.

The moment that best captures what Auster has achieved in “Sunset Park” is when Miles Heller, who has returned to New York until his under-aged girlfriend in Florida reaches the age of 18, walks into the Hospital for Broken Things.  It’s a repair shop that Bing Nathan, one of his cronies, operates from a storefront in Park Slope, a place where “battered artifact[s] from the antique industries of a half a century ago” — typewriters, fountain pens, record players, wind-up toys and gumball machines — can be put back into working order.  Bing offers Miles a job, but we are shown that the offer is driven by his own urgent needs and passions. 

“He knows that Miles is only half a person,” explains Auster, “that his life has been sundered and will never be fully repaired, but the half of Miles that remains is more compelling to him than two of anyone else.” 

The novel itself, we realize, is a Hospital for Broken Things. With the practiced hand of a master storyteller, he draws us into the lives of the characters he has imagined, and he allows us to glimpse their hurts and longings, their aspirations and frustrations, their sins and secret good deeds. Above all, Auster holds out the hope that broken men and women, too, can be repaired.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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