Paul Auster’s take on the economic plunge in 2008 is, like always with Auster, well written and intelligent. Perhaps though a bit too happy-clappy for actually being serious enough to be considered a novel on the dark months of late 2008 as opposed to being a novel simply set in late 2008 when a serious economic decline has just started and which result we still don’t know the full extent of.
As well as the main character Miles Heller, we follow the divorced parents and their new partners, friends and a girlfriend of Miles, the only son of a famous and highly successful publisher with his own publishing house and a movie star actress just about to make her comeback on Broadway. After having overheard a row between his father and his stepmother, where, she in particular, they air their worry over him and his reckless actions in the aftermath of the death of his half brother. Miles has sent them a letter in which he writes that he is leaving university, Ivy league Brown, for going to California to be with his mother for a few months to “figure things out”. Then, more than seven years passes before he is in touch again. If this is a nod towards Pushkin and his anti-hero Jevgeni Onegin who does the same after having killed his best friend against his wish (his friend’s second didn’t show so they had to duel themselves) I’m not sure, but there are similarities in their destinies. And in a way I think Miles Heller can be seen as an anti-hero in his own right too, fighting against his better senses at times and going against the normal flow of what many would call a good life. But, just like Jevgeni Onegin, he has to face the music in the end.
The title of the book comes from a poor area in Brooklyn, New York, where Miles Heller ends up as a squatter in an old abandoned wooden house after having been threatened by his seventeen year old girlfriends older sister that if he doesn’t bring her certain things (like a new flat screen TV, a new stereo, all the things he can steal or “get for free” at his job as a trash-out worker in Florida, searching through houses that has been left by evicted families unable to pay their mortgages. A job he does legally for banks and insurance companies looking to get their money back one way or another.) she will call the police and tell that he is in a relationship with a minor. That the minor happens to be her sister and that she has given her blessing earlier is not relevant any more. So when Miles gets on the bus to New York to live in Sunset Park with his old friend Bing, an obese wannabe drummer who runs a shop fixing old things that can’t be fixed anywhere else anymore, like type-writers, and Bing’s friends he has no idea that his life is slowly catching up with him. That living in New York where his father lives and runs his company won’t be easy when you want to tell your self that you want to have no contact. It eats him up from the inside, and the fact that he hasn’t told his girlfriend about his earlier life does not make it any easier.
Having finished this book I feel a bit like Miles Heller. I feel a bit like I have experienced all these great lines, finished all these well crafted sentences, and still haven’t gotten any wiser about the world.
For some reason Paul Auster has a tendency to do that to me. I feel I want to know more about the characters, I feel they are a bit pastiche like, a bit cliché. The suffering artist girl who’s unhappy with her body and therefore paints nudes, the rich boy who brakes with the expectations from his elders to go away because he can’t face the pressure and responsibility of him having to make his own decisions, the clever seventeen year old high school student who reads intelligent books and gets good grades and also happens to be an immigrant’s youngest daughter, the struggling but successful publisher, the famous female actress who drinks a bit too much and abandons her husband and son when he is just six months old and so on and so on. I miss something new and provoking.
If you don’t expect your world to be rocked, this is a very good read for the summer hammock. No pun intended. Clever and easy on the brain. But as a critique on the state of the nation of today in the United States it does not weigh very heavily, regardless of phrases dripping with irony like “…because this is America, and in America everything always works out.”