Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunset Park

Sunset Park is my first Paul Auster novel. Which is, I suppose, a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because as my first Auster, I came to it with no preconceptions, no expectations based on other books. Bad because I have no idea whether this represents Auster. Whether it does or not, of course, should be irrelevant; but I find it impossible to come to a well-known author—having read other works or not—entirely without assumptions. And Auster comes with high praise from The New York Review of Books, The Observer, and Haruki Murakami.

Auster tells the story from multiple points of view, Miles Heller, a 28-year-old college dropout who falls in love with and begins living with a 17-year-old Cuban-American high school girl; Bing Nathan, a friend of Miles from high school, who is squatting in an abandoned house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is a drummer, and who makes a living framing pictures and repairing old technology (manual typewriters, fountain pens, rotary telephones); Morris Heller, Miles's father, the founder and head of an independent book publisher; Alice Bergstrom, who lives in the Sunset Park house, works at the PEN American Center, and who is writing her doctorate thesis on the relations between men and women as reflected in books and movies from 1945 to 1947 (we hear a lot about "The Best Years of Our Lives"); and Ellen Brice, who also lives in the house, sells real estate, and is a frustrated artist and a sexually frustrated women. And there are more: Pilar Sanchez, Miles's girlfriend; Mary-Lee, Miles's mother who is a famous actress who is returning to New York to play Winnie in "Happy Days"; Miles's stepmother, who is teaching in England during the course of the book; Jake Blum, Alice's boyfriend and short story writer; Renzo Michaelson, a famous novelist whose popularity has helped keep Heller Publishing afloat; and more.

But while Auster tells the story from the point of view of the main characters (and I have the sense that he tells much more than he shows), they tend to run together. Morris is older than Miles, but he seems to have about the same perceptions, sensitivities, and ideas as Miles. Ellen seems distinct because of her sexual frustration, described in some detail. We do not get a lot of sensory detail, however, about the characters or the world through which they move. Rather we get information about obscure (to me) baseball players, the work of PEN, the challenges of publishing literary fiction today.

We do get a lot of threads to follow. Miles has disappeared from his family for seven years. Morris's publishing company is suffering from the recession (this is a very current book). Mary-Lee's concerns about aging and her role as Winnie.

What we don't get—or I did not get—is a sense of closure. I did not feel that Auster had earned the last sentence in the book, which goes on for a page, and concludes "...he [Miles] thinks about the missing buildings, the collapsed and burning buildings that no longer exist, the missing buildings and the missing hands, and he wonders if it is worth hoping for a future when there is no future, and from no on, he tells himself, he will stop hoping for anything and live only for now, this moment, this passing moment, the now that is here and then no here, the now that is gone forever."

And that's the end.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


This post is for people who have never read a James Lee Burke novel and for those who have read him, but not read Bitterroot.

Bitterroot, published in 2001, is set in western Montana, in and around the Bitterroot Valley. The time is contemporary (in one plot thread, Federal agents are investigating the Oklahoma City bombing). Most of the story is narrated by Billy Bob Holland, a former Texas Ranger, a former Assistant US Attorney, and now a Texas lawyer who goes to Montana to spend time with a friend, a former Navy Seal. Complications ensue.

The friend, a widower, has a teen-age daughter who, early in the book, is raped by three bikers. The bikers are then murdered one by one. Then the story becomes complicated. There are Federal agents; bikers; militia; corporate interests polluting the river with the cyanide used in gold mining; an young Indian woman, Sue Lynn Big Medicine, with whom Billy Bob's adult son becomes involved; an alcoholic, if very successful, mystery writer and his movie-star wife; a psychopathic rodeo clown; an Italian mobster who is trying to collect $700,000 from the widow of a murdered man; the local sheriff, and more.

One of the appeals of the book is watching Burke keep all these various threads clear and seeing them cross and affect one another. Another appeal is Billy Bob, a flawed man with a past. As a Texas Ranger he and his now-dead partner murdered Mexican drug mules; justifying the violence as serving the greater good. Now Billy Bob has a guilty conscience and a ghost who will not leave him alone and to whom he talks periodically throughout the book.

Yet another appeal is Burke's descriptions of the natural world: "The clouds were mauve-colored in the west and the rain blowing in the canyon at Alberton Gorge looked like spun glass against the light. I could smell the heavy, cold odor of the Clark Fork and the wetness of the boulders in the shadows along the banks and the hay that someone was mowing in a distant field. The riparian countryside, the purple haze on the mountains, the old-growth trees that were so tall they looked as if they lived in the sky, were probably as close to Eden as modern man ever got, I thought. But this wonderful part of the world was also one that Carl Hinkel [the leader of the local militia] and his friends, if given an opportunity, would turn into a separate country surrounded by razor wire and guard towers."

Because this a popular mystery, you know the bad guys will get their comeuppance and the good guys will be rewarded, but wondering how Burke is going to tie all the threads into a satisfying knot kept me reading when I should have been doing other things. A lot of fun.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I think I intended to read Ian McEwan's novel Saturday when it first appeared in 2005 and then confused the intention with the act. I could always talk about it in general terms (perhaps from reading reviews), but when I picked it up at a book sale not long ago and began reading, "Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet..." it was not familiar. Now that I've read it and found it so vivid, so powerful I have to believe I would have recalled it had I read it before. Still, it is worth reading again.

I've read most of McEwan's novels, including On Chesil Beach. Atonement, Amsterdam (which has one of the best depictions of musical composition I've ever read), Enduring Love, and Black Dogs. I found Saturday particularly interesting because of the limitations McEwan set himself: He tells the story from only the point of view of Henry Perowne, and all the action takes place on a specific day in history—Saturday, February 15, 2003—in London. I am entirely convinced that this character could have had these experiences and these thoughts on that day.

In a sense, not much happens. Henry, waking in the night and staring out his bedroom window, sees a plane on fire, but it turns out be a cargo jet that lands safely at Heathrow. Henry makes love to his wife, has breakfast with his musician son, has a minor car accident on his way to his weekly squash game (and a confrontation with three roughnecks in the other car), the squash game with an associate from the hospital, an afternoon visit to his Alzheimer-stricken mother, and a return home to greet his poet father-in-law and his poet daughter who is returning from six months in Paris.

The day is extraordinary for London because thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest the impending war in Iraq. The day is extraordinary for Henry because the accumulated events change him (I do not want to spoil the story for someone who has not read it). The day is extraordinary for the reader for Henry's (or McEwan's) thoughts, insights, observations about brain surgery, war, violence, poetry, music, competition, aging, death, and much, much more.

A few more things I like about the book: Henry is—generally—happy and successful, a skilled surgeon in a loving marriage. Do you know how hard it must be to make someone like that interesting to a reader? Henry has two children, a famous father-in-law, and a dying mother, and we learn who they are, what they want, what they're like. He has associates at the hospital where he practices, one of whom is an American with whom Henry plays squash. And he has an antagonist who is more than a plot device. If you haven't read it, I recommend it.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Through the Language Glass

One reason to study Japanese (or Chinese or Korean or Guugu Yimithirr) it seemed to me was that because we think in a language, our language affects what we think. You have one picture of reality when you think in English, another when you think in Japanese. And because Japanese is so different from English, it expands what you can possibly know. My analogy would be the difference between my walking through the woods or walking with a trained botanist who can identify all the plants and trees. It would be a much richer experience with someone who knows the language.

Guy Deutscher, an honorary Research Fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures in the University of Manchester, has written Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, which explores these questions. I found it fascinating, although if you read the article in the New York Times Magazine, "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" you have most of the book's meat.

Yes, language does shape how you think, but not in the way that linguists had thought. Just because a language does not have a future tense, for example, does not mean that native speakers cannot imagine the future. Just because a language does not have plurals (Japanese has almost none) does not mean that native speakers cannot distinguish between one book and five books. Your language determines not what you can say, but what you must say.

For example, I cannot talk about my "brother" in Japanese; I must talk about either my "older brother" (ani) or "younger brother" (ototo); there is no single word for a male sibling. Similarly, I cannot say "I went out with a friend," in Italian without identifying the sex of the friend (amico or amica).

Deutscher's book is an interesting account of the intellectual debate over these issues. It does seem clear that our language colors our reality. (And color words are particularly troublesome for linguists: Did Homer really see world in black and white because there are no color words in the Illiad and the Odyssey? What color is a wine-dark sea?) The book is filled with interesting facts about languages. German, for example, has seven ways to form a plural. Speakers of certain Aboriginal Australian languages do not talk about something in "front" of you or "behind" you, but to the north or the south, which changes as you move through space; as a result these people seem to always know which way is north.

I would recommend the book to anyone who has more than a passing interest in language. I would recommend the Times Magazine article to those who have only a passing interest.