web counter VISITORS SINCE JUNE, 2006

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Paul Auster's "Sunset Park" -- Coming To Terms With The Fact Talent Has Its Limits

I will still praise "Sunset Park" as an excellent novel, but a disturbing pattern began to develop around the middle of the novel that, while it didn't exactly disappointed me, it made me realize that even geniuses have faults.  Again, I still think the novel is a must-read, a very human, existential and compelling portrayal of feelings that is second to none.  Perhaps it is my inability to fully understand the structure of the novel and the flow of the narrative, but I felt some discontentment the deeper I got into the plot.

First, the structure of the novel is that of chapters entitled with the names of the characters center to said chapter.  For example, the protagonist, Miles Heller has a number of chapters where most of the action is based on allowing the reader to obtain, digest and piece together Mile's fragmented last seven years of his life.    The same goes for the rest of the main characters.  There is, without a doubt, a conjoining pattern to all of this, I just haven't discovered yet.  I wonder if this is not the reason why, at times, it feels like too much information is being jammed in so as to appear crammed with bits and pieces I am not quite sure add anything to the character's portrayal.  For example, the father-son relationship for which Auster's work is notorious is once again excellently examined.  Miles and his father, Morris, relate in a constant shift between past and present.  In addition to what the reader can absorb on the surface, the character of Alice, a struggling PhD candidate writing a dissertation on The Best Years of Our Lives is displayed as another element in the individuals' dismantlement in views of the past/present environment and personal inclinations toward melancholy.  A key scene to this post-World War II classic is examined by Alice--the father trying to bequeath war trophies to his son, and his son's indifference to the trophies (a Japanese flag and Samurai sword).  This scene is connected to others in the film--the character of Harold Russell's inadequate relationship to his father and mother (but particularly his father) when his hooks (hands) become a fixture of challenge ahead.  All of this adds to Miles and his relationship to his father.  There are periphery relationships too disconnected to mention here: Miles' mother, the actress MaryLee Swann, absent for most of Miles' life; Morris Heller's second wife, Willa, whose son Bobby from a previous marriage Miles' has been "blamed" for killing in a bizarre accident; other relationships like the one between Miles and Bing Nathan, a childhood friend whose long-term friendship is now being saturated with homo-erotic tendencies--all of these seem, in some way or another, linked intricately with an almost invisible line to the relationships in The Best Years of Our Lives.

As for the writing itself, one is always safe to bet on Auster's magnificent construction of passages that are as poetic as they are moving.  For example, Morris Heller's ruminations late in the novel, "We do not grow stronger as the years advance.  The accumulation of sufferings and sorrows weakens our capacity to endure more sufferings and sorrows, and since sufferings and sorrows are inevitable, even a small setback late in life can resound with the same force as a major tragedy when we are young." This is one of the many passages Auster's fans are always looking for every time he publishes.  All in all, there's nothing extraordinary about the passage, but if looked at deeper level (not of meaning but semantics), one realizes how much craft goes into a passage like this.  This is where Paul Auster always shines--a master language handler and king of the revision process.  Hands down the best contemporary author!

I am not a great writing teacher; most of my work at the academic level has been less than stellar. I'll be honest enough to confess to several thousand writing mistakes/errors on this blog itself.  Yet, there's an element of grammar in the second half of "Sunset Park" that (while being an issue of contention regarding style) I cannot ignore.  The use of the pronoun "you" late in the novel, while artistically permissible, acts as a repelling factor to many writing teachers.  This is no doubt a personal preference of mine... or, in fact, not a preference of mine, but one inculcated in my head while I was an undergraduate.  One of my professors in an Introduction to Fiction course felt it was his duty to "assassinate" authors he considered "old-fashioned," or "politically incorrect" to prove a point.  What that point was, I don't quite remember.  But the jest was something to the effect of killing the excitement some readers have when they discover, say, Hemingway's writing.  I am only using Hemingway as an example.  We had a long discussion in class one day about the use of the "you" in a narrative.  The professor indicated that Hemingway was known vastly for this "trick," and may be even to blame for its propagation.  He stated that Hemingway, like many others, use the "you" as a cheap trick to draw the reader into the plot, while "real" or "authentic" fiction writers worked harder and drew more talent to achieve the same effect without the use of a pronoun.  As ridiculous as that point of view is, it somehow remained in my brain strongly enough to think about it every time I see it in someone writing.  Again, this is more my perception (or even misinterpretation), and not Auster's fault.  He has paid his dues, really, after 19 novels, to prove that his use of "you" is not a cheap trick but part of the craft itself.

I cannot wait until the next Paul Auster novel.  Every release of a new book is an event to me.  Let's hope he continues to publish and share his amazing talent with all of us for years to come.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home