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Paul Auster’s Sunset Park: Communal Existence vs. Mass Objectification



A Sartrean analysis of any society gives us the fact that all communities are composed of two groups of people: subjects and objects. This dualism creates a binary pair in which the former is always subjugating the latter, giving rise to mass objectification in the hands of a few. Action against the few is, however, possible if objects make a sort of communal existence, in Sartrean terms, against their subjugation. This kind of existence happens if the “us” of the objects turns into the “we” of the subjects in order to master their own existence, a fact that requires certain individuals with a common goal of mastering their fates to make a unity against the ruling system. Paul Auster’s Sunset Park presents us with such a community in which four typical figures make a local unity to resist the American Capitalism so that they can live their own lives amidst mass objectification. As such, their attempt at survival in such society is an existentially authentic action which can be investigated in the light of Sartre’s philosophy for its merit in acting against objectification. 1
Paul Auster’s Sunset Park: Communal Existence vs. Mass
Mohammad-Javad Haj’jari1,* Leila Hajjari2
1 Department of English, Shiraz Payam Noor University, Iran
email address:, telephone number: 00989354374679
2 Department of English, Persian Gulf University, Boushehr, Iran
*corresponding author:
A Sartrean analysis of any society gives us the fact that all communities are composed of two groups of people:
subjects and objects. This dualism creates a binary pair in which the former is always subjugating the latter, giving rise
to mass objectification in the hands of a few. Action against the few is, however, possible if objects make a sort of
communal existence, in Sartrean terms, against their subjugation. This kind of existence happens if the ―us‖ of the
objects turns into the ―we‖ of the subjects in order to master their own existence, a fact that requires certain individuals
with a common goal of mastering their fates to make a unity against the ruling system. Paul Auster‘s Sunset Park
presents us with such a community in which four typical figures make a local unity to resist the American Capitalism so
that they can live their own lives amidst mass objectification. As such, their attempt at survival in such society is an
existentially authentic action which can be investigated in the light of Sartre‘s philosophy for its merit in acting against
Keywords: Auster, communal existence, objectification, Sartre, Sunset Park
Sunset Park (2010) is a story of four individuals whose lives go through numerous ups and downs in the
economic turmoil surrounding Bush II's second presidency, speciafically regarding the housing crisis in the USA.
Auster's protagonists, although most of them fianlly fail to maintain their integrity as individuals within a subjugating
capitalistic system, experience a period of unity against such system through communal existence in existential terms.
Auster‘s sixteenth novel, is an existential portrait of ―matters of maturity and family, broken homes and fractured lives‖
(Hutchisson 2013, xii). This realistic novel is filled with ―stories about failure, disappointment, and death‖ (Auster
2011, 45), having in itself a ―multi-generational portion of America in the present moment,‖ as Auster says (Auster and
Siegumfeldt 2017, 287). It is ―shaped differently from anything I‘ve tried before,‖ Auster says in his interview with
Linderman in 2009, as ―it contains some very long sentences, sentences that are three pages long‖ (as cited in
Hutchisson 2013, 200). Moreover, the network of human relations that Auster highlights through human interactions in
this novel contributes to one of the themes of the novel, that of communal existence for the sake of survival, a fact
philosophically recalling Sartre‘s concept of ―being-for-others.‖
In what follows, two specific concepts in Sartre‘s existentialism will be applied to Sunset Park regarding
Sartrean ―being-for-others‖ in order to partly peer into Auster‘s message. Accordingly, the concepts of ―Us-object‖ and
―We-subject‖ will be discussed in so far as they are two aspects of any community of people within any society,
especially a society struggling with social, economical, or political turmoil, as in Sunset Park.
Sunset Park follows a down-to-earth realistic portrait of living in a post-9/11 America still suffering under Bush
II‘s presidency. Many of the characters have to live within their means due to the crisis in the American economy
during this time. Moreover, many of the members of the working class seem to be harshly struggling with one of their
essential needs, which is housing. The economic turmoil of the era has led to an unprecedented rise in rent payments, a
fact highly responsible for the existential crises we observe in the central characters of Sunset Park. As Auster says in
―Reflections on a Cardboard Box,‖ ―For many others, the increases have spelled the difference between having a place
to live and not having a place to live. For some people, it has been the difference between life and death‖ (2005, 502).
Miles, Bing, Alice, and Ellen, as four individuals with different backgrounds, have to sacrifice their individuality and 2
privacy for the sake a communal existence merely to save more money and live within one‘s means as far as possible.
The arrival of each one of these four people at the Sunset Park house, which is in Miles‘ words like a ―prison‖ (Auster
2011, 127), may allude to any number of prisoners in Auschwitz concentration camps during WWII where many
individual Jews from different backgrounds and life stories were deprived not only of their individuality but of their
natural right of freedom. Communal life, as Miles and his housemates are experiencing it, has two completely opposite
sides at war with each other: objectification as the Sartrean ―us-object‖ in being deprived of individuality and
communal existence as symbiosis among the individuals involved in a situation as the Sartrean ―we-subject.‖ In other
words, the story of Miles and his housemates in the hell of a ruined house is a story of mass identity versus
individuality, a conflict which not only has consequences on the personal level as an existential crisis but also on the
communal level as an speculation over the human condition in the society.
2.1 “Us-Object” and the Double Subjugation of Human Identity and Existence
The ―photograph of abandoned things‖ (Auster 2011, 3), taken by Miles in the confiscated houses, are signs of
people who have been robbed out of their existence, and there is no more sign of them about their whereabouts:
Each house is a story of failureof bankruptcy and default, of debt and foreclosureand he [Miles] has
taken it upon himself to document the last, lingering traces of those scattered lives in order to prove that the
vanished families were once here, that the ghosts of people he will never see and never know are still present
in the discarded things strewn about their empty houses. (3)
This initial image of an abandoned house is repeated at the end of the novel when Miles and his housemates have to
leave their house with all they have in it. So the concept of place plays a significant role in this novel when we consider
that issues such as feeling at home and feeling alienated in a place are not detached from the very physical structure of
that place. Miles, Bing, Alice, and Ellen feel not at home in their own country when we read about their life stories
either separately or through their shared living in a rotten house. This sense of alienation by them makes them objects of
no value under the economic problems of their country while they try their best to maintain their individuality.
Miles Heller ―is twenty-eight years old, and to the best of his knowledge, he has no ambitions. No burning
ambitions, in any case, no clear idea of what building a plausible future might entail for him.‖ His only
accomplishment, if ever, after quitting college and his parents‘ house, is his ―ability to live in the present, to confine
himself to the here and now‖ like a vagabond. As such, he has tried to attain ―discipline and self-control, . . . to have no
plans, . . . to have no longings or hopes, to be satisfied with . . . [his] lot, to accept what the world doles . . . [him] from
one sunrise to the next;‖ to ―want very little, as little as humanly possible‖ ( Auster 2011, 6). His personal traits are
summarized in his job as well:
In a collapsing world of economic ruin and relentless, ever-expanding hardship, trashing out is one of the
few thriving businesses in the area. No doubt he is lucky to have found this job. He doesn‘t know how
much longer he can bear it, but the pay is decent, and in a land of fewer and fewer jobs, it is nothing if
not a good job. (4)
But he was born into this state. He was a smart boy who used to be a good listener to his professor mother talking about
―goddamned bloody existentialismover dinner (23), a fact which initiated his step-brother‘s jealousy since he was not
as smart as Miles. There were sometimes arguments between them, the last one leading to Bobby‘s death, which was
―an absolute devastation.‖ Since then ―Miles had closed in on himself.‖ Running away from home ―was a stupid thing
to do,‖ but he thought that something good might finally come of it; ―maybe being on his own for a while would give
him a chance to straighten himself out‖ (176).
Even before Bobby‘s death, Miles was already in turmoil. His blood ―fitful, incompetent‖ mother (Auster 2011,
257), Mary-Lee, ―remained a presence‖ in his life, only playing ―the role of exotic stranger‖. And his real mother in his
eyes, Willa, who brought him up after his nanny left, had not actually given birth to him (62). Not able to handle his
mental turmoil, he was dubbed by his own father as impotent. And by constantly changing his address not to be located
by his parents, ―He has turned himself into a black sheep. That is the role he has willed himself to play, and he will go
on playing it‖ (68). Miles has been ―in a war, . . . he has been wounded, . . . he walks around with an inner wound that
will never heal, . . . he is in pain, and he never says anything about it‖ (236). His ―savage withdrawal into himself, the
escape from his own life, the punishing blue-collar jobs as a form of penance‖ (276), all as the consequences of
Bobby‘s death, have made him a ―grief-stricken boy with no illusions‖ (242), living ―more than a decade in hell‖ (277).
Miles could choose otherwise than escaping his parents‘ house and face the reality of his mistake in Bobby‘s
death. Miles is in ―bad faith‖ in so far as he has chosen to be in ―bad faith,‖ in Sartrean terms, since he looks at himself 3
as if he has nothing to contribute to the world. In Sartrean philosophy, ―bad faith‖ stands for ―inauthenticity,‖ that is,
when ―a person refuses to take responsibility for his actions and the situation in which he finds himself‖ and thus either
escapes his responsibilities or takes his freedom of action bound to some predetermined rule which he thinks he cannot
disobey (Cox 2008, 17). Although Miles showed signs of intelligence in his childhood, Miles has now developed an
inferiority complex, which in Sartrean terms ―is a project of my own for-itself in the world in the presence of the Other
―for-itself‖ is Sartre‘s term for human reality as he suggests by pointing to the infinity of human posibilities which
give him/her ultimate freedom. Sartre holds that ―This inferiority which I struggle against and which nevertheless I
recognize, this I have chosen from the start‖ as a ―project of myself as inferior before others;‖ ―it is the way in which I
choose to assume my being-for-others‖ (1956, 459). Regarding Miles, ―the self that becomes the site of retreat‖ comes
from ―his inability to come to terms with his past.‖ He has turned inwards as a ―way of freeing – or perhaps, displacing
himself from the past‖ (Deshmukh 2004, 41), while he is essentially wrong. I can be ―freed‖ from my ―inferiority
complex‖ only through ―a radical modification of my project.‖ Until I am ―in‖ the inferiority complex, I cannot ―even
conceive of the possibility of getting out of it‖ (Sartre 1956, 475).
Miles is not the only one responsible for his sense of inferiority; his father and two mothers are also
blameworthy. Although Morris, as Auster says, is ―the moral center of the book‖ (Auster and Siegumfeldt 2017, 290),
he has not been able to handle his life well enough:
Never doing anything, never saying anything, keeping himself hidden, watching Miles grow older,
watching his son turn into a man as his own life dwindles into something small, too small to care about
anymore, listening to Willa‘s tirade in Exeter, all the damage that has been done to her, his brave,
battered Willa, Bobby on the road, Miles gone, and yet he grimly perseveres, never quite able to let go of
it, still thinking the story hasn‘t come to an end, and when thinking about the story becomes unbearable.
(Auster 2011, 179)
Morris‘ passivity is mostly due to his sincerity; he is in ―bad faith‖ in so far as he thinks that life should happen
according to what he sees possible. Being in danger of losing Willa and his business, he is used to telling himself that
―as long as there is breath in him he will not allow either one of those things to happen.‖ But the course of events does
not show that Morris is doing anything for that cause; everything happens just by itself or according to circumstances.
Morris is thus ―straddling the border between inevitable extinction and the possibility of continued life‖ (172). He feels
―nowhere‖ in his home (282), a fact highlighting his ontological oscillation between extinction and life since he is
unable to reconcile Miles and Willa. As Auster says, ―Nowhere‖ here refers to ―the inconstant place where Morris finds
himself abandoned both by his wife and son‖ simultaneously as he feels torn between them. Auster continues that
―Morris is trying to come to term with ambiguity. Things are not going to be resolved, and he has to learn to live with
it‖ (Auster and Siegumfeldt 2017, 302). He has also some hidden anger at being a father, feeling ―something close to
envy, thinking that Renzo made the right decision all those years ago to steer clear of the kid business, to avoid the
unavoidable mess and potential devastation of fatherhood‖ (Auster 2011, 146). His detachment from interacting with
Miles‘ affairs might also be related to his regret of being a father. There are, however, ―some encouraging signs that
have given him cause for hopeor, if not quite hope, a sense that it is still too early to succumb to resignation and
despair‖ (172-173). The same thing is true for Miles‘ blood mother who left her baby to pursue her acting career, while
now she feels regret and ―needs time . . . to think it over‖ to face his son again after many years (282). Somehow being
parentless and living a wanderer‘s life, Miles has nothing to claim; he is like an object whose existence or non -existence
makes no difference to him. He has objectified himself and finds no use of himself. He ―regrets everything,‖ as he once
tells Bing (250).
Miles‘ would-be housemates suffer from similar identity crises. Bing, who plays the bright mind of the group by
philosophically talking about everything, is no better than Miles. Unable to pay his rent anymore, he accepts Ellen‘s
offer to live in the Sunset Park house. Moreover, due to his own view on life, he has satisfied himself with the least
necessities of survival. In a Thoreauvian manner, he is also against technology and argues against Capitalism. He also
believes that human kind is ―tangible:‖
Human beings are tangible. They are endowed with bodies, and because those bodies feel pain and suffer
from disease and undergo death, human life has not altered by a single jot since the beginning of
mankind. . . . even if man has changed the world around him [through technologies], man himself has not
changed. The facts of life are constant. You live and then you die. . . . everything that happens to you
from the moment of your birth to the moment of your death . . . has also been felt by everyone who came
before you . . . (Auster 2011, 73-74). 4
Trying to give a fixed formula for life on all grounds, Bing seems justified in not craving for dreams and merely
satisfies himself with his opinions on simple life. He is like a cynic philosopher living in a cave, with his oversimplicity
and frankness. His simplemindedness about the similar process of life for all individuals makes them a mass with no
individuality, thus degrading the quality of life that a certain individual might have by authentically pursuing his/her
potentiality of being and the infinite choices in life. Bing is then in ―bad faith‖ by being hotheadedly sincere in his
worldview, a fact which makes him a bit coarse in Ellen‘s and Alice‘s eyes. Bing‘s formula objectifies not only others
within the same category but also his own individuality.
Ellen and Alice have also lost their individuality by having been forced to follow what the system wants from
them. Their objectification first of all derives from being deprived of their dreams in a system in which all their choices
have been limited to very few ones. Ellen projects ―an aura of anxiety and defeat . . . mired in some sort of depression,
living out her days in an underground room at the Hotel Melancholia‖ (Auster 2011, 79), afraid of ―dying without
having lived‖ (106). Her abortion even made her spirits worse; it was ―the end of Ellen Brice as a so-called normal
person.‖ She then kept on with life by spending a while in the psyche ward of a hospital, spending ―a long, infinitely
depressing period living with her parents,‖ seeing a psychotherapist three times a week, attending group therapy
sessions, and taking pills which ―were supposed to make her feel better but didn‘t.‖ It was through painting classes that
―she began to feel that she was almost living in the world again, that there might be something that resembled a future
for her, after all.‖ Her job in a real estate firm in Brooklyn also helped her start living on her own, although the job is
not satisfying for her (114). However, she ―needed to be free of the ever-worried eyes of her mother and father, and this
was her only chance‖ (115).
Regarding Alice, she is subject to not only men‘s whims but also a vague future regarding her career. Already
detaching herself from her boyfriend, ―a frustrated man, a man who is rapidly becoming a failure in his own eyes‖
(Auster 2011, 94), Alice ―doubts that another man will come along anytime soon, and this worries her, since she is
thirty years old now, and the prospect of a childless future fills her with dread‖ (288). On the other hand, in the last
three years, her PhD dissertation ―has been an end in itself, the mountain she set out to climb, but she has rarely thought
about what would happen to her after she reached the top.‖ She wonders whether ―toiling in some English department
for the next four decades will be fulfilling enough to sustain her‖ or she shall consider other possibilities (289).
These four people, as individuals from different backgrounds and with various abilities, come to become a mass
in a prison-like place, deprived of their individual freedom and forced to live the meanest probable life imagined for
them. The Sunset Park house is thus filled with a repairman and a musician (Bing), a painter (Ellen), a PhD student and
a would-be professor (Alice), and Miles who is yet to fulfill any dream, ―all poor and struggling, all with talent and
intelligence‖ (Auster 2011, 39). Each one of these people used to live in his/her own sphere of being, trying to maintain
his/her individuality until they ended up in the house. According to Auster, the house is ―described in different ways
depending on who is speaking. It‘s almost as if there‘s a correlation between house and character‖ (Auster and
Siegumfeldt 2017, 288). For example, Bing just finds the opportunity a very unique one regarding his own life based on
simplicity. Alice is more oriented toward her future career and has to save costs as much as possible, and thus the house
is just a means to an end for her. For Ellen, the question is totally different. Although she sees it a ―right move‖ to come
to this house and Bing and Alice treat her well and ―she is less lonely now,‖ many times it happens t hat ―being with
them has only made things worse‖ (Auster 2011, 116). Living alone, ―she never had to compare herself with anyone.
Her struggles were her struggles, her failures were her failures, and she could suffer through them within the confines of
her small, solitary space.‖ Next to her housemates, ―she feels like a dim sluggard, a hopeless nonentity.‖ She thinks that
Alice, her PhD, and her future academic post as well as Bing, his band, and his small business are more successful than
what will come out of her activities; she thinks that ―she is getting nowhere fast‖ since her art ―has crashed into a wall‖
and her time is wasted ―showing empty apartments to prospective tenants‖ (106 -107). Even Miles, on his arrival in New
York and visiting the neighborhood,
quickly loses interest in Sunset Park. There is something dead about the place, he finds, the mournful
emptiness of poverty and immigrant struggle, an area without banks or bookstores, only check-cashing
operations and a decrepit public library, a small world apart from the world where time moves so slowly
that few people bother to wear a watch. (132)
The house itself is not better. Auster says that ―My descriptions of the house are taken directly from the real thing,‖
which was a partially built house left abandoned around Sunset Park in Brooklyn (Auster and Siegumfeldt 2017, 288).
The Sunset Park house in the novel is
a dopey little two-story wooden house with a roofed-over perch, looking for all the world like something
that had been stolen from a farm on the Minnesots prairie and plunked down by accident in the middle of 5
New York. It stood between a trash-filled vacant lot with a stripped-down car in it and the metal bones of
a half-built miniapartment building on which construction had stopped more than a year ago. The
cemetery was directly across the way, which meant there were no houses lining the other side of the
street, which further meant that the abandoned house was all but invisible, since it was a house on a block
where almost no one lived. He asked Ellen if she knew anything about it. The owners had died, she said,
and because their children had been delinquent in paying the property taxes for several years running, the
house now belonged to the city. (Auster 2011, 80-81)
What kind of residents would such house have? With the cemetery across from the house, living there seems like
―living in limbo, like going on a vacation in hell‖ (211). So people who come to live there might be either at the ends of
their lives or hopeless enough to tolerate their situation. The cemetery plays a crucial role here. It is a place where
people from all classes lie dead, with no claim on anything. Playing the dead, or being dead, is pure objectification in
the eyes of the living one. As Sartre says, a dead person, a dead ―for-itself,‖ is ―a prey‖ for the living ―for-itselfs‖ (1956,
543); and ―to die is to exist only through the Other, and to owe to him one‘s meaning and the very meaning of one‘s
victory‖ (544). The ―for-itself‖ is ―always in the process of becoming,‖ that is, to exist the ―for-itself‖ must constantly
―assert its lack of Being‖ (Barnes 1956, xxxi). The ―for-itself‖ is the freedom of choice among possibilities. So when
there is no choice, the ―for-itself‖ must be dead: death is ―the nothingness of human-reality‖ (Sartre 1956, 532). Miles
and his housemates have no choice but to settle in the Sunset Park house at least it is a choice, the only choice, in their
situation. However, Miles and his housemates, in so far as they are living in the house, play dead people cast away from
the world without certain identities except through their memories. Death, specifically when one is ―forgotten‖
afterwards, attacks even the living person when he/she is ―one element dissolved into a mass,‖ it is ―to lose one‘s
personal existence in order to be constituted with others in a collective existence.‖ It is also important to note how the
living ―for-itself‖ makes sense of its relation with the dead.‖ The ―initial project‖ is to organize the dead in ―anonymous
masses‖ or as ―distinct individualities‖ (Sartre 1956, 542).
One can imagine how an inauthentic life among others resembles death for an inauthentic ―for-itself,‖ and how
each one of us can objectify others like dead people in our relationships with them if we deny their freedom as ―for-
itselfs.‖ This makes us, in Sartre‘s words, the ―Us-object‖ which ―participates us in the world‖ before Others (1956,
415). It means that ―our only genuine sense of community comes in the form of an Us-object when we perceive
ourselves along with others forming the object of the gaze of an Other‖ (Barnes 1956, xxxi). Although we are
individuals, many of us share interests which make a we out of any group of people whom I, for example, am a part.
That is because in each situation, each one of us is ―in relation to the Other‖ (Sartre 1956, 415). Sharing a house, a very
unpleasant one, Miles and his housemates all establish a group which is the object of economic crisis, hence their
double objectification they have been already objectified individually by the economic system and now they have
become ―Us-object‖ in the house. As Sartre says,
belonging to the Us-object is felt as a still more radical alienation on the part of the for-itself since the
latter is no longer compelled only to assume what it is for the Other but to assume also a totality which it
is not although it forms an integral part of it. In this sense the Us-object is an abrupt experience of the
human condition as engaged among Others as an objectively established fact. (1956, 419)
This concept initially ―aims at including my belonging as an object to the human totality,‖ and is related to ―an
experience of humiliation and impotence.‖ Sartre argues that ―every human situation since it is an engagement in the
midst of others, is experienced as ‗Us‘ as soon as the Third appears.‖ This ―Third‖ can be anyone or any group of
individuals, a government, a system, even God, watching over a group or party and subjecting them to the objectifying
look. There are situations, in particular, which give rise to ―the experience of the Us‖ more clearly (1956, 419). For
example, ―class consciousness‖ is one of them since it stands for ―a particular ―Us‖ on the occasion of a collective
situation.‖ In so far as the ―economical or political structure‖ of a society is concerned, it is divided into ―oppressed
classes and oppressing classes.‖ The situation of the former classes presents the latter classes with ―the image of a
perpetual Third‖ (420). For example, Miles and his housemates have been unwantedly turned into ―Us‖ before the
capitalists. As Sartre says, the ―master,‖ the ―feudal lord,‖ the ―bourgeois,‖ the ―capitalist‖ are all ―powerful people who
command‖ and above all act as ―Thirds,‖ that is, ―as those who are outside the opposed community and for whom this
community exists.‖ So ―the reality of the oppressed class‖ exists for them and they cause that real ity ―to be born by
their look.‖ It is therefore for them that ―I exist in a situation organized with others and that my possibles as dead-
possibles are strictly equivalent with the possibles of others,‖ that ―I experience myself as one among others.‖ It is this
―collective alienation‖ to which the oppressed refer to as ―Us‖ (Sartre 1956, 421). So the double subjugation of human
identity and existence, mentioned in the title of this section, stands for Miles and his housemates‘ individual 6
objectification within the society through the oppressors‘ policies. Their ‗collective alienation‘ as ―Us -object‖ is also
within the same prison-like settlement in which they have been deprived of all their rights regarding privacy and
individualism, hence their double objectification.
At the end of the novel, when officers show up to have the house evacuated, Miles and his housemates ―are all
homeless‖ again, Miles tells his father on the phone, ―Alice and Bing are homeless, he is homeless, the people in
Florida who lived in the houses he trashed out are homeless‖ (Auster 2011, 307). In the human world, collective
alienation seems unstoppable in not only depriving individuals of their essential human rights but also of their own
possessions: ―Alice‘s dissertation, Bing‘s drums, and all her [Ellen‘s] drawings of the past five months, . . . all of it sti ll
in the house, in the house that is no doubt sealed up now, off-limits, and everything gone forever now‖ (302).
2.2 “We-Subject” and Communal Existence Symbiosis for Survival
―The ‗Us‘ collapses as soon as the for-itself reclaims its selfness in the face of the Third and looks at him in
turn,‖ Sartre says. This ―individual claim of selfness‖ is but ―one of the possible ways of suppressing the Us -object‖
(1956, 421-422). Regarding Sartre and his concept of the ―look,‖ it is only the non-human entity which cannot look
back upon the onlooker. In so far as there are people who can look back to those who look at them, each onlooker can
be both a subject and an object. So the ―Us‖ in cases such as ―class consciousness‖ necessarily needs not to undergo the
project of freedom by ―an individual recovery of selfness;‖ rather, the freedom of the whole ―Us‖ from its
objectification is better achieved through transformation into a ―We-subject‖ (422), or the unity of individuals as
subjects with common interests.
In Sunset Park, although we see a group of homeless individuals who have been deprived of their housing right
by the government, the government that is acting the Sartrean ―Third,‖ possibilities still exist. Miles and his housemates
still struggle to reconstruct their identity after settling in the Sunset Park house as ―a quest for an alternative living
environment.‖ There ―they are temporarily able to materialize their longings‖ (Boettcher 2013, 224). Nothing has really
changed; they are still homeless and officers may appear at any moment to throw them out. However, within their
situation they form a community as ―We-subject‖ to help each other symbiotically through a communal existence. As
Sartre says, ―We-subject‖ belongs to the ―psychological order and not ontological.‖ In other words,
[―We-subject‖] in no way corresponds to a real unification of the for-itselfs under consideration. Neither does
it stem from an immediate experience of their transcendence as such (as in being-looked-at), but it is
motivated rather by the double objectivizing apprehension of the object transcended in common and of the
bodies which surround mine. In particular the fact that I am engaged with others in a common rhythm which
I contribute to creating is especially likely to lead me to apprehend myself as engaged in a We-subject. This
is the meaning of the cadenced march of soldiers; it is the meaning also of the rhythmic work of a crew. It
must be noted, however, that in this case the rhythm emanates freely from me. (1956, 424)
The ―We-subject,‖ unlike the ―Us-subject‖ which deprives each individual of his/her subjectivity, helps the individual
regain his/her subjectivity and only share it with the subjectivity of others. It is ―a question only of a way of feeling
myself in the midst of others,‖ while I have the absolute freedom to practice my own subjectivity (425). Coming to
terms with this new condition is initially on the personal ground: ―It‘s a question of character,‖ Miles says, ―Every man
is different from every other man, and when rough things happen, each man reacts in his own way‖ (Auster 2011, 44-
45). Except Bing for whom life is not really important, Miles himself considers the house as a prison; Alice is initially
afraid of living an underground life but consents to Bing‘s suggestion to pretend that the house is theirs and that
everything goes well; and Ellen is mostly concerned with her privacy and loneliness which would be corrupted with
others. However, they all finally succumb to the situation and choose to communally live to support each other by
counteracting the ―Third‖ party, the government, which has put them in that condition. Bing here plays the crucial part
against the ―Third.‖ He is ―a rebellious character whose thoughts and actions serve the establishment of his little world
against what he sees as America‘s failure since the Vietnam War.‖ He is also against technology and believes that ―the
technological developments of the past decades have in fact only diminished the possibilities of life‖ (72). As such, he
is a Thoreavian figure, covertly a disciple of Thoreau, whose anti-technology attitude resembles Thoreau‘s living style.
So it is not surprising that he feels really at home in a ruined house, dreaming ―of forging a new reality from the ruins of
a failed world‖ (Auster 2011, 71). However, although the subjectivities involved in the ―We-subject‖ are ―radically
separated‖ from each other, they support each other in so far as the freedom of the ―for-itself‖ is concerned (Sartre
1956, 425). The ―We-subject . . . must in order to be realized presuppose a twofold preliminary recognition of the
existence of others‖ (426). It was mentioned that for Sartre freedom is not only defined on the individual level of each
―for-itself‖ but that each ―for-itself‖ should try to provide for the freedom of other ―for -itselfs‖ by acknowledging their 7
subjectivity and their freedom. The ―We-subject‖ acts likewise, maintaining each ―for-itself‖ in its subjectivity
simultaneously as it unites ―for-itselfs‖ through a common goal.
The common goal shared by Auster‘s characters in Sunset Park is best summarized in Bing‘s opinion about
America, the Sunset Park house being a microcosm for it. In Bing‘s view,
Since the war in Vietnam, . . . the concept known as America has played itself out, . . . 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. .
. . 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. (Auster
2011, 72)
Bing‘s decisions are ―small ones‖ but they are not unimportant; at least he tries ―to adhere to the fundamental rule of his
discontent . . . to resist the status quo on all fronts‖ (71). Part of his mission is to oppose any high concept of housing,
and the shabby Sunset Park house thus becomes an ideal place for him. He also tries to convince others to accompany
him it is Ellen who finds the house while it is Bing who argues for living there to save costs and invites Miles to live
with them. On hearing Ellen telling him about ―the abandoned house in Sunset Park,‖ Bing sees it ―as an opportunity to
put his ideas to the test, to move beyond his invisible, solitary attacks on the system and participate in a communal
action‖ (76). His argument to occupy the house is revealing enough:
These are desperate times for everyone, and a crumbling wooden house standing empty in a
neighborhood as ragged as this one is nothing if not an open invitation to vandals and arsonists, an
eyesore begging to be broken into and pillaged, a menace to the well-being of the community. By
occupying that house, he and his friends are protecting the safety of the street, making life more livable
for everyone around them. (77)
The hell of the Sunset Park house thus becomes a semi-utopias, rather a heterotopia. In Sartre‘s words,
[an] object is already humanized; it signifies ―human control.‖ The ―Exit‖ considered as a pure opening
out onto the street [from a theatre, etc.] is strictly equivalent to the ―Entrance‖ [to the street, open space,
etc.]; neither its coefficient of adversity nor its visible utility designates it as an exit. I do not submit to
the object itself when I use it as an ―Exit;‖ I adapt myself to the human order. (1956, 427)
It is we humans who give meaning to objects an ―Exit‖ sign in essence has no meaning but what we give it. The
Sunset Park house thus provides Miles and others the only exit from their catastrophic situation into a better one. That is
why all of them finally consent to live in it with others. The positive side of it is that ―[p]ooling their resources‖ helps
them handle the situation (Auster 2011, 126). The Sunset Park house, unlike its shabbiness, thus becomes a restarting
point for the wretched. With nothing to lose, Miles and his housemates focus on the progress and not the end since no
end is plausible within their situation. Miles once tells his blood mother that
There‘s no way to measure your progress. So I kept at it, not knowing if I was better or not, not knowing
if I was stronger or not, and after a while I stopped thinking about the goal and concentrated on the effort.
. . . I became addicted to the struggle. (263)
However, the state of the ―We-subject‖ is transitory since the ―for-itself‖ has nothing to do with stagnancy. Both the
―Us-object‖ and the ―We-subject‖ are respectively experiences and psychological states which befall all of us, and it is
up to us to find ourselves in which situation. Ellen, once standing on the front porch of the house, both knows that she
has been losing her talents and ―realizes that she must begin again‖ (115) she ends up with his former boyfriend and
moves in with him, having developed ―new relation . . . with her innermost self‖ (291). Alice, if the last fighting scene
had not happened, would have achieved her long-desired goal to become a professor or a PEN employee. Auster does
not follow her story in the hospital after her injury in the last scene of the novel, but she may have her laptop back and
go on with her PhD program. Miles would have begun his studies and had the support of his parents to marry Pilar if he
had not fought with the police. There are still choices for him to follow, as his father is going to talk him into
surrendering himself to the police. ―He‘ll probably get off with a fine or a suspende d sentence‖ but ―his future is not so 8
bleak,‖ Auster reflects (Auster and Siegumfeldt 2017, 303). Maybe it was only Bing who would keep on living that
wretched life, and that was why he was the one who resisted more in the last scene.
Auster‘s message is finalized when Miles is on his way to his father‘s house to talk about handing himself to the
police because of the fight. Miles speculates that
if it is worth hoping for a future when there is no future, and from now 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 not here, the now that is gone forever. (Auster 2011, 308)
According to Morris, ―one would have to be made of stone not to want a new chapter to begin‖ (Auster 2011, 269).
Although the settlers of the Sunset Park house end up in a condition worse than the one before occupying the house,
their attempt at communal existence for the sake of each other against the oppressing system was a new chapter in their
lives. The ―We-Subject,‖ in so far as it helps with the subjective health of the individuals involved, dismantles the very
means of objectification the system uses to turn individuals into the ―Us-object.‖ Thus, while communal existence
under the ―We-subject‖ symbiotically serves survival and individual freedom for the individuals involved, the ―Us-
object‖ turns the living subjects into dead corpses lost in the mass, as represented by the large number of dead people in
the cemetery across from the Sunset Park house. All in all, in Auster‘s words in the novel, ―Hope endures, then, but not
certainty. There has been a truce, a declaration of a desire for peace, but whether this has been a genuine meeting of
minds is not clear‖ (2011, 267).
Sunset Park is a novel about typical people in a typical city within a typical country. However, the centrality of
the plot is on Miles‘ shoulders and his life among others within the United States of America during the last years of
Bush II‘s presidency when the economic crisis has strongly made many members of the working class homeless. Not
only has Auster depicted a wide range of human relations in this novel through an omniscient third person point of
view, he has also made his point more concrete by realistically focusing on the lives of certain individuals out of that
human web.
Auster has made the structure of this existential book of personalities with chapters named after major characters
in each chapter the world of the namesake character is happening along with the world of other characters in other
chapters. The interactions these characters have with each other contribute to the common elements all of us as ―for -
itselfs‖ have in our world where we have to be for each other since we are beings that are not alone and cannot act
alone, hence our subjectivity and objectivity at all times and in all places. It is also interesting that the last section of the
novel is titled ―All,‖ followed by separate subchapters named after the characters which were honored a chapter name
earlier. It is as if the characters are uniting with each other against the system to establish their ―We-subject‖ for
communal survival.
Auster‘s world in this novel is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. The novel begins with evacuated housed full
of objects left by their owners on being forced to quit the houses and ends with another evacuation scene, Alice‘s
sever injury, Bing‘s arrest, and Miles‘ probable prison sentence. The stories of the characters are also mostly those of
loss than achievement. However, there are events which make the novel brighter toward optimism in the face of harsh
social realities, such as Ellen‘s change of mood for the better and the promise of a better life from her former boyfriend
as well as the probable reunion between Miles and his parents. Auster does not really end the novel with catastrophe,
although it does not end well; he opnely lets us imagine other possibilities of living for the characters, maybe for the
better, when they pass their present turmoil. Hope is always there since it is always possible to change for the better.
[1] Auster, P. (2005). Collected prose: Autobiographical writings, true stories, critical essays, prefaces and
collaborations with artists. New York: Picador.
[2] Auster, P. (2011). Sunset park. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
[3] Auster, P, & Siegumfeldt, I. B. (2017). A life in words: Conversations with Paul Auster. New York: Seven Stories
[4] Barnes, H. E. (1956). Intro. To Being and nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology, by J-P Sartre,
translated by H. E. Barnes, pp. viii-xliii. New York: Philosophical Library.
[5] Boettcher, N. (2013). Identity formation in Auster‘s fictional urban space.‖ Romanian Journal of English Studies,
vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 220-27.
[6] Cox, Gary. (2008). The Sartre dictionary. New York: Continuum. 9
[7] Deshmukh, P. (2014). Then catastrophe strikes:‖ Reading disaster in Paul Auster‘s novels and autobiographies.
PhD diss, Université Paris-Est, Paris.
[8] Hutchisson, J. M., ed. (2013). Conversations with Paul Auster. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
[9] Sartre, J-P. (1956). Being and nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology. Translated by Hazel E.
Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Paradoxical in its very definition, disaster is the singular event which ruptures time and space – of narration, of the story, or of history. While disaster is central to Paul Auster’s work, it rarely appears as a theme for writing, or as historical events to recount, to represent. Instead, disaster is central as a narrative strategy deployed in Auster’s texts – as the core notion which underlies all philosophical questioning and tropes present in his writing, as the rhythmic impulse which provokes his writing and maintains its fluidity. The Austerian time is characterized by the disappearance or the stretching of the present in the face of a threatening future, by the contrast between the ordinary and the unlikely, and by recurrence and compulsion – all of which are signs of the disaster. Disaster is etched in space – of the room, of the book, of the body, which are the focal points of Auster’s novels – but may also destroy the very fabric of space, yielding in its wake, narratives of emptiness, nothingness and nowhere. The philosophical experiences of Auster’s characters – losing, dissociating and recomposing themselves, remembering or witnessing – are those of the disaster, and wind up aestheticizing limit-experience. It is through this narratological fertility of disaster that Auster sets himself apart from other American postmodernist writers: instead of merely recounting disaster, of letting it fragment his discourse, he is actively engaged in reconstructing and restitching with the strongest of narrative threads. Auster does not simply write (about) the disaster – he writes through, or in spite of, disaster.
How does the contemporary self depicted in Paul Auster’s fiction constitute himself in the metropolis New York City? I will investigate the extent to which New York City influences the shaping of a metropolitan identity in two selected literary works by Paul Auster: City of Glass and Sunset Park
Collected prose: Autobiographical writings, true stories, critical essays, prefaces and collaborations with artists
  • P Auster
Auster, P. (2005). Collected prose: Autobiographical writings, true stories, critical essays, prefaces and collaborations with artists. New York: Picador.
A life in words: Conversations with Paul Auster
  • P Auster
  • I B Siegumfeldt
Auster, P, & Siegumfeldt, I. B. (2017). A life in words: Conversations with Paul Auster. New York: Seven Stories Press.
The Sartre dictionary
  • Gary Cox
Cox, Gary. (2008). The Sartre dictionary. New York: Continuum.