Paul Auster’s new novel did not disappoint – always a factor since I have such high expectations of him, based on the anticipation. But here are all the things layed out that work for me with Auster: the New York milieu, the part that chance and luck play in his stories, how oddly we live and how fortuitously we search for and find ourselves. Or as Auster’s second wife Siri Husttvedt has said (and he recognizes her in his acknowledgements: there is that strangeness of being alive.
The novel begins and ends with the character of Miles Heller, a man haunted by the guilt he feels for having been responsible (he believes), directly or indirectly, for the death of his half-brother. In between are chapters on his mother Mary-Lee Swann, his father Morris Heller, his stepmother Willa, his old friend Bing Nathan and the coterie of people associated with a squatter house in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn: Alice Bergstrom and Ellen Brice.
There are several wonderful motifs used in this novel: the two standouts being baseball (players names, players lives, especially those with tragic ends) and the film The Best Years of Our Lives. The film is a major component dissertation that Alice is working on. She has watched it innumerable times, and watches it again several times during the course of the novel. The small details and observations given (through Alice) assure a burning desire to watch this film again, because of the many incredible insights offered here. I want to see them for myself, and it’s been some years since I’ve seen the film. Nearly everyone in the novel watches or has watched and comments on the movie during the course of the narrativenovel. This motif is worth a separate treatment by itself. I don’t recall ever reading Beckett’s Happy End (though I’ve read a lot of Beckett). Miles’ birth mother comes to New York to play the lead role of Winnie in the play. Auster doesn’t go into the choice too far, but I have a sense that it is a great metaphor for something closely related to the novel. I’d like to read that as well. A great novel can sometimes be defined as one that spurs you on to read other novels, because of the allusions raised. Other more minor motifs utilize The Great Gatsby.
Miles, after overhearing a frank and brutal conversation between his father and his step-mother, flees home and works a series off odd jobs, in several cities, having dropped out of Columbia. He finds himself in Florida working at a job known as “trashing out”, a vocation created by the economic disaster. He cleans up foreclosed homes. He also has an associated hobby of taking pictures of the detritus left behind by shattered lives. One off day, he’s reading The Great Gatsby in the park and a young girl (she turns out to be seventeen) notices him as she’s reading the same novel. They discuss their reading habits and a friendship ensues as they find they have many things in common. Pilar Sanchez is a Cuban-American, orphaned and living with her three sisters, Maria, Teresa and Angela. Angela is the oldest. When Pilar and Miles move in together, Miles smooths the way by giving the sisters, especially Angela, gifts obtained from the abandoned houses. Pilar is an extremely bright girl, a straight A student, whom Miles encourages to keep at it, to take advantage of every opportunity (as he had not, having abandoning his own studies). Miles has never taken anything before from these homes, although with his co-workers it is standard practice. This turns out to be a mistake, because Angela soon tells him she wants more material things. He refuses, and Angela threatens to expose his affair with her underage sister. After being roughed up by a few of Angela’s bouncer friends, he escapes to New York, taking up Bing Nathan’s offer to move into the squatter house across from a cemetery in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Pilar remains behind in their flat (he’s paid six months rent, with plans to return when she is of age).
By now its been seven years since he’s spoken to his family (mother, step-mother and father). Bing Nathan, whom he has kept in touch with has secretly kept Miles’ family up top date on his whereabouts. The story turns to those living in the abandoned house. Bing is the one who found the house and selected the others to live there as well. Bing plays in a band, though those gigs make only enough money to pay for their practice space. But he also runs a business of sorts called The Hospital of Broken Things. Mostly he repairs stuff that is not in use anymore. He makes a bit on picture framing and typewriter repairs. Bing is unsure of his sexual identity, and although he lusts after sex with women, he’s mostly unsuccessful, and wonders whether he’s attracted to the same sex, especially Miles. Ellen Brice works unsuccessfully as a real estate agent and paints rather dispassionate pictures with no people – buildings, landscapes. Later, she begins drawing erotic pictures and feels she has found her niche. Alice Bergstrom is working on her disssertation and works part-time at PEN.. She has a boyfriend who is distancing himself from her, who also is questioning his sexual preferences.
Miles’ father (Morris Heller) runs a small publishing house Heller Books. He married young to Mary-Lee Swabb. A marriage that produced only Miles, but no lasting relationship, and they soon split up. Mary-Lee becomes rather a famous actress, from the stage to the big screen then television and in her later years acclaim again on the stage. She’s on her third husband, but has matured into a woman who understands the ways of the world, and navigates the world of acting with aplomb. Willa is the step-mother who raised him with love as if Miles were her own flesh and blood.
All of these characters are fully realized and we can see where they have come from and where they are going – and why.
The tragedy of the Heller family, and the root reason for Miles’ flight has to do with the death of his stepbrother Bobby. Bobby was the issue of his mother’s marriage to another man who had died of cancer. Bobby and Miles got along well, for the most part, but on this day as they were walking along a road, they were arguing.
It was the summer of 1996, roughly one month after his father had given him The Great Gatsby and five other books for his sixteenth birthday. Bobby was eighteen and a half and had just graduated from high school, having squeaked through by the skin of his teeth in no small thanks to the efforts of his stepbrother who had written three final term papers for him at the cut-rate price of two dollars per page, seventy-six dollars in all.
On the way to a summer cottage vacation, the car runs out of gas and they have to walk. This angers Miles, another example of Bobby’s irresponsibility in his mind.
Whenever he thinks of that day now, he imagines how differently things would have turned out if he had been walking on Bobby’s right instead of his left.
As they argue. Miles shoves Bobby, who stumbles into the road just when a car comes along and runs him over.
When they were living together in Florida, Miles used to read various things out loud to Pilar. Sometimes he’d even take down an outdated version of the Baseball Encyclopedia and pick out names that would make her laugh. They’d also play games (games that are sports staples: the all body parts team for instance (Elroy Face, etc.). He tells her the tragic stories of Herb Score, Denny McLain, Steve Blass, Mark Fidrych, Donnie Moore – all stories handed down from his father. These stories are told with loving detail. To balance out these sad tragedies, he also tells the story of of one Lucky Lohrke. All this is inspired by the news one morning in the paper that Herb Score had died. The news of Fidrych’s freak accidental death comes later in the story as well.
We each react to similar situations in different ways, as the similar stories with different outcomes of Steve Blass and Ralph Branca can attest.
…baseball is a universe as large as life itself, and therefore all things in life, whether good or bad, whether tragic or comic, fall within its domain. Today they are examining instances of despair and blighted hope, but the next time they meet…they could fill an afternoon with scores of funny anecdotes that would make their stomachs hurt from laughing so hard.
As Miles makes his way back to New York on a bus, having been smacked in the jaw to intimidate him (as a reminder of what he had to do they told him), he realizes, reading the papers, that both his father, step-mother and mother will all be in New York at the sane time. Miles thinks about this oddity. It’s odd in Miles’ life for sure. For Auster though, it’s a signature occurrence in nearly all of his novels.
How odd. How terribly odd and incomprehensible. No doubt it means nothing, nothing whatsoever, and yet why now, he asks himself, why did he choose to come back now? Because he didn’t choose. Because the choice was made for him by a large fist that knocked him down and commanded him to run from Florida to a place called Sunset Park. Just another roll of the dice, then, another lottery pick scooped out of the black metal urn, another fluke in a world of flukes and endless mayhem.
There are two examples of another facet of Auster’s world view: the discontent with the way things are, and what we can do about it. Bing Nathan
…struggles to adhere to the fundamental rule of his discontent: to stand in opposition to things-as-they-are, to resist the status quo on all fronts. Since the war in Vietnam, which began nearly twenty years before he was born, he would argue that the concept known as ‘America’ has played itself out, that the country is no longer a workable proposition, but if anything continues to unite the fractured masses of this defunct nation, if American opinion is still unanimous about any one idea, it is a belief in the notion of progress. He contends that they are wrong, that the technological developments of the past decades have in fact only diminished the possibilities of life. In a throwaway culture spawned by the greed of profit driven corporations, the landscape has grown ever more shabby, ever more alienating, ever more empty of meaning and consolidating purpose.
Bing knows it’s all a lost cause, but his small acts of rebellion keep a spark alive in him, he has not knuckled under yet. The basic facts of life have not changed – only the things we surround ourselves with. Yes, we’ve invented air travel (as well as “jet-lag and in-flight movies”), but in the end, we live, we deal, we die.
Auster is still the consummate New York writer for me. When he picks a selected group of names out of the 600,000 bodies buried in the cemetery (Green-Wood Cemetery) across from the squatter home that the group lives in, the juxtapositions and possibilities for free-association are mind-boggling.
Boss Tweed, Lola Montes, Currier and Ives, Henry Ward Beecher, F.A.O. Schwarz, Lorenzo Da Ponte, Horace Greeley, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Samuel F. B. Morse, Albert Anastasia, Joey Gallo, and Frank Morgan – the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”.
And his ability for character drawing (he loves his characters, that is clear – he’s fair with them all) also includes the physical. Here is a rapid fire, perfect description of Millie. Millie was one of the original squatters, who had a brief fling with Bing, but suddenly left to pursue her career as a dancer in California. This made room for Miles. So Millie is a minor character to be sure, yet Auster did not short change her as a character.
Not a pretty girl, no not by the conventional standards that define prettiness (nose too sharp, left eye veering off slightly, too thin lips), but she had a terrific head of wiry red hair and a lithe, fetching body…Millie Grant, a twenty-seven-year-old part-time dancer, part-time restaurant hostess, born and raised in Wheaton, Illinois, a girl with four small tattoos and a navel ring, an advocate of numerous conspiracy theories (from the Kennedy assassination to the 9/11 attacks to the dangers of the public drinking-water system), a lover of loud music, a nonstop talker, a vegetarian, an animal rights activist, a vivacious, tightly sprung piece of work with a quick temper and a machine-gun laugh – someone to hold onto for the long haul.
Wow. A “quick temper and a machine gun laugh”.
The last third of the book is titled “All”. “All” encompasses short sections for all the major characters that serves as a kind of summing up, a denouement for each of them. The characters come together, and then many go their separate ways. This section as well, begins and ends with Miles.
There is another section of note here: Alice has a paying, part-time job at the PEN American Center and Auster, through what we learn of the organization, presents a vigorous and rousing defense and portrait of their work – free expression for writers, and the fight against censorship. Timely stuff, because Liu Xiaobo figures heavily in the novel as it relates to PEN. Coincidentally, earlier in October the Chinese, “literary critic, writer, and political activist who is serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese prison” won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. The PEN motif, if you will, touches Morris and Alice especially, along with Morris’ star writer for Heller Books, Renzo Michaelson.
This is a terrific novel, and one that deserves to be read. And by me again. But first, I’ve got some homework: Watch The Best Years of Our Lives and read Samuel Beckett’s Happy End. Then I’ll be ready for Round 2.