12.10.2010

TPR Challenge #10 - Paul Auster

In Sunset Park, publisher Morris Heller makes the following remark:
Writers should never talk to journalists.  The interview is a debased literary form that serves no purpose except to simplify that which should never be simplified. (271)
Since we know authors will often put themselves or their opinions into their books, (just moments before, Heller said "in spite of the idiot culture that surrounds them, books still count, and the work they are doing is important work, essential work.")  I wonder if this quote about interviews has any connection to Auster himself and if so, how he felt about his interview with The Paris Review.  Was it given begrudgingly?

In the interview, Auster is asked about a story in his The Red Notebook collection where he recounts the experience of his 14-year-old self walking in the woods with friends when one of the friends is suddenly and fatally struck by lightening.  He says it was the first time he encountered "the bewildering instability of things" (319), and I believe this concept applies beautifully to his Sunset Park.  Though it is ostensibly a book about people more than events, I was continually on edge for those people; I could feel their tenuous connection to this world, as if they would, at any moment, simply drift away or contrastingly, be violently cut away. It was that bewildering instability that kept me so engaged.

The plot focuses on Miles Heller, son of the aforementioned Morris.  He "disappeared" after his third year of college and has been wandering rather aimlessly in the 7 years since.  The remaining cast of characters (each with startling, discrete stories) emerge as they are pulled into Miles' orbit; they become satellites, revolving in their own way with him as their core.  The story begins in Florida, where Miles is working as a "trash-out" guy in foreclosed homes.  It migrates to New York when Miles is forced to leave Florida and decides to join his friend Bing (and housemates Alice and Ellen) squatting in a foreclosed house in the Sunset Park neighborhood.  The chapters alternate characters, and each person offers something unique to the story, but there is not one element, not one character (not even Miles) who I got attached to.  Instead, I was drawn in by the story itself and by the storytelling. 

Undoubtedly, Auster is a gifted writer.  See this bit about the Florida sun if you do not believe:
It is a Machiavellian sun in his opinion, a hypocritical sun, and the light it generates does not illuminate things but obscures them - blinding you with its constant, overbright effulgences, pounding on you with its blasts of vaporous humidity, destabilizing you with its miragelike reflections and shimmering with waves of nothingness. (7)
While in Florida, Miles falls deeply in love with Pilar, a young woman not yet 18.  The book goes to great pains to make sure we do not think anything wrong with this union; it shows Miles' respect for her, his protection of her, and insists upon the Truth of their Love.  Despite its best efforts, however, I did take issue with this element of the story. Though I believe that Miles believes in his love for her, I don't have to approve of the way the relationship functions.  I don't like the paternalistic protection he extends over her; Miles acknowledges it as somehow inappropriate yet accepts it as the right thing to do, as though we too should accept it.  But I do not.  A union based on such a unbalance of power is certain to struggle if not actually implode at some point.  The fact that Miles has issues with violence (never towards the girl) also causes me to pause.  But perhaps most interestingly is that while many of the other satellites in Miles' atmosphere get a chapter, Pilar does not.  She has no voice, no story, other than that which directly affects Miles.  She is wholly admired by all who encounter her, but she does not have a presence that makes her real.  She exists in the shadows, and I disagree with the message that sends readers about Miles, about marriage, and about people really. 

After reading the interview, I remained intrigued with Auster's body of work, so I picked up his The Invention of Solitude from the library.  It is a thin book from an earlier time in his career (after the bulk of the poetry and translation work, before the novels) that functions officially as a memoir but reads like a novel.  Auster (in the interview) calls it the "foundation of all my work."  The writing is perhaps even more powerful here than in Sunset Park.  Here's the opening paragraph:
One day there is life.  A man, for example, in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness.  Everything is as it was, as it will always be.  He goes from one day to the next, minding his own business, dreaming only of the life that lies before him.  And then, suddenly, it happens there is death.  A man lets out a little sigh, he slumps down in his chair, and it is death.  The suddennness of it leaves no room for thought, gives the mind no chance to seek out a word that might comfort it.  We are left with nothing but death, the irreducible fact of our own mortality.  Death after a long illness we can accept with resignation.  Even accidental death we can ascribe to fate.  But for a man to die of no apparent cause, for a man to die simply because he is a man, brings us so close to the invisible boundary between life and death that we no longer know which side we are on.  Life becomes death, and it is as if this death has owned this life all along.  Death without warning.  Which is to say: life stops.  And it can stop at any moment. (5)
I have read hardly more than the first few pages, but I am taken by his candor and the fresh way he writes of a difficult time (immediately after the death of his father) and an impossible subject.  I am impressed.

The interviewer asked Auster how often the autobiographical occurs in his novels, and I found his response curious.  He says basically that he does include elements from his life, but "far less than you might think."  Then, they go on for several back-and-forths bringing to light some of those elements.  More interesting to me though is how much of the interview material showed up in Sunset Park.  He talks about being a baseball player and a huge fan of the game; Miles is the same.  He talks about aging and the difficulties of the effect of "the accumulation of losses" upon a person; Morris makes a very similar comment regarding his wife, Willa.  He questions the way we represent ourselves in media and society; Bing makes some similar observations.  I bring up these correlations not to make a liar out of Auster but to point out how writers can never know when a piece of their future work is going to start germinating in their minds.  This interview occurred in 2003, 7 years prior to the publication of Sunset Park.  But there are the seeds of those story elements right there in the interview, exposed for all to see.  Basically, I'm saying the human brain is pretty danged awesome. 

I will leave you with two final thoughts:
1.  Auster claims "I rarely speak directly through my characters. They might resemble me at times, or borrow aspects of my life, but I tend to think of them as autonomous beings with their own opinions and their own ways of expressing themselves."  You are free to use this assertion to answer my opening question as you wish.
2.  Did you Lydia Davis fans know she was Auster's first wife?  And that he is now married to Siri Hustvedt?

Double digits on the TPR Challenge total!  I am almost 1/6th of the way there, and I have yet to be disappointed.  Up next, Elizabeth Bishop.

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