September 01, 2011
Discussion: Sunset Park, in progress
Note: the following will contain spoilers for the first fifty or so pages of Paul Auster's Sunset Park, as it largely contains my impressions after reading that far.
One of the things that strikes me about Paul Auster is that he is able to easily inhabit these narrators who are on the surface both somewhat unappealing and also apparently different from you or I. This time it's a young man named Miles Heller, who has been walking for miles in his own privately imposed Hell since he was involved in the death of his brother Bobby -- an accident by even Miles' account, but his guilt won't let him believe that.
Auster is like this, so very on-the-nose with some of his naming and metaphors that his stuff actually works at times. It has a sort of a charm to it, and on balance his books succeed at pulling off little magic tricks that surprise entirely on the basis of everything having been done in plain sight of the reader. When the narrator's girlfriend asks if the Heller Publishing on the back of a book he's loaned her is any relation (it is, though he doesn't admit it), he replies that Heller is actually a pretty common name, when you get right down to it -- Auster pointing out here that quite a few people are actually also in Hell, it's a common thing.
As for unappealing, well, Heller is involved in a relationship with a young woman who is seventeen and therefore he has been committing statutory rape, though there are no direct depictions of such. Here, too, Auster is working in plain sight, because the fact of this relationship will propel the plot forward in very short order. Heller has cut himself off from his former life, maintaining only a single connection with his old life in the form of a friend still in New York, someone who can give Heller occasional glimpses of the life he's left behind, and who can give him an opening to return.
All of this directness, this nothing-up-my-sleeve, makes me wonder if Auster is indeed going to pull off a sort of magic trick at the end.
It's not as if you don't see this elsewhere. One of my favorite films this year, Midnight in Paris, has a character named Gil Pender, pointing out the fact that here's a guy who hasn't quite got his life going yet, despite a certain amount of success. With a film, however, I'm more likely to consume it all in one sitting, whereas reading fifty or so pages of a book at a time is more my habit, allowing for reflection to sort of come along the way. And so, the meaning of Pender's name sort of comes with my later reflection on what I've seen, and lends the film a sense of inevitability and helps hold the whole thing up.
There are other obvious bits in Sunset Park, such as the fact that Heller's job is something called "trashing out," by which banks empty out foreclosed homes of belongings and clean up after messes left by the mortgagors who abandoned their payments¹. This is a direct reflection of what Heller himself is doing with his personal life, fleeing the tragedy that left him so full of guilt, abandoning comfort and certainty for an attempt at Zen-like removal of emotion.
The games it has most called to mind thus far has been Passage, of course, which attains a sort of "everyman" status by both its aesthetic and its algorithmic choices, and also a little browser game by MollieIndustria, Every Day the Same Dream. In the former, the pixellated presentation and abstracted characters do so in a fairly direct way. In the case of games like these, though, which are meant to be consumed in a matter of a few minutes, the meaning comes through in a different way -- we either get it through repeated play, or through the impact of a single experience. I've played each of these more than once, but Passage I've played dozens if not hundreds of times². Passage achieves its "everyman" quality by abstracting about as far as one reasonably can -- its characters are male and female and apparently Caucasion, sure, so they are at least that particular, but beyond that there's not much. Every Day the Same Dream goes after an archetype, the working cubicloid who repeats day after day after day -- it's not far to abstract that to anyone who's in a particular rut in life.
I'm super busy right now shipping a game, but thought I'd drop a line here to let people know I'm not dead (yet).
¹Perhaps themselves to move on as Heller has, or enter another circle of their own private Hells, who knows.
²I kind of use Passage as a sort of memento mori at times. I've gone through periods where I play it once daily.