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Paul Auster

Paul Auster is often cited as one of the leading American contemporary authors - I would certainly agree with that, and one of the things I like about his books and which helps to give him that leading edge is the variety he achieves.

At times he is surreal (New York Trilogy, Travels in the Scriptorium), at times writes a straightforward narrative (Book of Illusions, Sunset Park) - but always he writes with wonderful craftsmanship, that sense that writing is effortless to him, and yet when you stop to look at how he writes, it is very sophisticated and surely meticulous.  It's hard to convey in words what I love about his writing - he seems to me a 'real' writer, one who is as interested in the craft of writing as he is in what he is saying, and yet the writing is in the service of the literary creation, not the reason for it.  Perhaps I'm wrong!

What makes me say that is his ability to create characters who even when they are mysterious seem to live and breathe.  His characters are often difficult or unappealing - as is the main character in Book of Illusions - and yet somehow we come to care despite our not liking them very much.  That's partly, I think, because of the way Auster weaves a sort of magic around them, combining social observation with literary and cultural references - he uses film a lot.  So he creates a world that interests, and the characters are intrinsic to that magic.

I have been thinking about this because I have just read Sunset Park, his most recent novel (I think), and found it a bit disappointing - and have been trying to work out why.  Certainly some of the elements are there - his evocation of New York, without cliche and indeed with very little mention of anything famous in New York, is wonderful; his characterisation is fabulous; he uses a particular film - The Best Years of our Lives - as a refrain throughout the book, and uses it brilliantly.  But the plot, such as it is - of a young man, estranged from his parents, in love with a teenage girl, and trying to resolve both of these issues without causing further pain - somehow never quite works.  The ending is the most disappointing aspect of all for me - I don't mind open endings, and I like complicated endings, but this just seemed unsatisfying, leaving things too much up in the air while seeming to give a sense of profundity.

Miles, the young man, is an interesting character - but he could be a wonderful character, and I'm not sure why he isn't.  Two of his housemates in Sunset Park - where four of them are squatting in a disused house - are also potentially wonderful, the two female housemates (the fourth is male, an old friend of Miles's, the reason Miles ends up in the house).  Lots of things about art and life and so on - it should all be great, but somehow it remains a bit flat.  Bing, the fourth housemate, works in the Hospital of Broken Things, mending typewriters and other things that people might generally consider obsolete - surely a metaphor for life or society, but not much attention is given to it.  I presume the whole novel is a comment on modern American society - but perhaps you have to be American to appreciate the nuances!  I certainly missed them, if they were there.

The chapters move between the different characters, and he does this very well - it can be an irritating structure, but it isn't here; he plays with narrative techniques a bit, playing with tenses and person, including one chapter in the second person (I am not sure why, though it was interesting - need to think about that a bit more).  The crafting of the novel, in terms of prose and structure, was as excellent as I've come to expect from Auster.

But it lacked the memorable brilliance of New York Trilogy or Book of Illusions; there are several of his books I have yet to read, but those two stand out for me as favourites.

Anyway, if anyone else has thoughts on Auster - on Sunset Park or any of his novels - do voice them here.  He's such a fascinating author and a brilliant writer, and I'm amazed I haven't started a thread on him before!

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