Late in Sunset Park, as the journeys of his characters draw to a close, Paul Auster makes his first and only reference to Homer’s Odyssey. It is such an obvious connection that it almost seems awkward –it either too small or too overwhelmingly obvious to mention. The narrative inevitably bears some resemblance to Odysseus’ journey, starring 28-year-old Miles Heller as the exiled hero. Like Odysseus, Miles is on a quest to reunite with the emotional and physical landscape of his past, and like Odysseus, Miles’ will make myriad fantastical and seemingly disconnected pit stops on his way home.
Ever since he dropped out of Brown seven years ago, Miles Heller has wandered from state to state doing manual labor and odd jobs, despite the fact that the other characters in the book unanimously agree that he is the smartest person they have ever met. Miles is indeed brilliant, but he is also depressed and without ambition.
As Odysseus is physically separated from his rightful property, Miles is psychologically separated from his own talents. Odysseus is unable to restore order to his home, while Miles is unable to reach his potential. He disappeared after overhearing a volatile conversation between his father and stepmother that aptly described Miles as a person alarmingly void of feelings. Believing their criticisms to be accurate, he seamlessly extricates himself from their lives, and—essentially—his own.
To that end, Miles is not much of a hero. He’s debilitated by terrible secret: he is inadvertently responsible for his brother’s death. Here Auster treads lightly into Biblical territory; it’s the story of Cain and Abel projected onto fun house mirrors. Miles is both Cain and his kinder, wiser more capable brother; his own dead brother Bobby seems to have lacked any positive qualities and has only been elevated by his early death.
Unlike Cain, however, Miles is not sent away—he runs away. Also unlike Cain, it is not preordained that he will be forgiven. In many respects, the futility of Miles’ suffering is reminiscent of the Ancient Mariner. He has committed a gratuitous and unthinkable crime that separates him from his community thus he must resign himself to eternal exile. While he alludes at varying points to a hope that his period of wandering will bring salvation, Miles is complacent in his anonymity and ambivalence.
Why is Miles’ story so saturated with literary reference? Perhaps because he is overeducated, his father is a publisher, and even his 17-year-old Cuban girlfriend is absurdly well-read. Or perhaps his quest to live-out a grueling reenactment of literary history is Auster’s attempt at quiet, post-modern humor.
In this novel, there are too many heroes and not enough Gods. What distinguishes Miles from his literary models is the lack supernatural powers in his story. Odysseus and the Ancient Mariner are cursed; their fate is beyond their control. Miles is punishing himself, and like a Greek God, seems to be doing so for his own amusement.
The closest thing to God in this book is Bing Nathan, arguably the head architect of this tale’s trajectory. He serves not only as a character but also as omniscient poet-narrator. His energy and helpless aspirations are the glue that binds the characters together. Bing exchanged letters with Miles for the seven years since his disappearance and reports back on his well-being to his parents. It’s Bing who gathers together a group of misfits and convinces them to squat in an abandoned house in Sunset Park.
Like Miles, Bing is an antihero. While Miles is a wonder-child failing to live up to his potential, Bing is a groveling underdog succeeding far beyond his inherent means. He’s fat, hairy, a failure with women and a struggling artist who runs a repair shop in Park Slope to make ends meet. His role as a ring-leader is counterintuitive; he is another example of how Auster has turned the austere into circus.
Alas, the carnival is populated with performers who take themselves far too seriously to be swept up in the chaos of their surroundings. In addition to Bing, there are two other residents of the house in Sunset Park, Ellen and Alice. They are troubled but intelligent woman, and their narratives, along with those of Miles’ parents, are succinct, deliberate and unambiguous.
Only when their stories come together does uncertainty and lawlessness pervade. In a sense, if there is a deity wrecking havoc on the lives of these characters, it is the time and society in which they live.
In the traditional epic, a corrupted hero is isolated from healthy society and embarks on a quest to restore his internal order so he may return. In Sunset Park, Miles’ society is as corrupt as he is. Restoration of order is futile and return is impossible—after all, he never really went anywhere.
Ultimately, this universe is populated by strange people and strange days. But it lacks Auster’s usual elements of surrealism. Perhaps by depicting a world in which characters such as these are the norm, he shows us a reality that is more disturbed than we can imagine.