TEXT OF INTERVIEW
KAI RYSSDAL: The Fall of 2008 — the very peak of the financial crisis — was a moment in time that nobody’s really anxious to live through again. But we are still living with the aftereffects: the foreclosure crisis, high unemployment, general economic uncertainty.
The latest book from novelist Paul Auster, “Sunset Park,” follows four people during the winter of 2008, just following the height of that crisis. It begins, the book does, really, the way the whole crisis started: with homes. And Miles Heller, whose job it is to get abandoned and foreclosed homes ready for resale down in Florida.
When we talked, I asked Paul Auster to read the opening paragraph of the book for us.
PAUL AUSTER: “For almost a year now, he has been taking photographs of abandoned things. There are at least two jobs everyday, sometimes as many as six or seven. And each time he and his cohorts enter another house, they’re confronted by the things — the innumerable, castoff things — left behind by the departed families. The absent people have all fled in haste, in shame, in confusion. And it is certain that wherever they are living now, if they have found a place to live and are not camped out in the streets, that their new dwellings are smaller than the houses they have lost.”
RYSSDAL: You know, the thing that struck me as I read this paragraph and then went through the book is that this guy, Miles, is documenting materialism and the materialism that we had in this country for a decade or two, and then he and his friends go on to basically reject all that materialism as they get hit by this recession and their own homelessness.
AUSTER: Yes. The action shifts from Florida up to Brooklyn, the neighborhood of Sunset Park, which is a large, rather downtrodden part of the city. And four of them become squatters in an abandoned house.
RYSSDAL: The people in this book, as you say they are young — late 20s — but they do seem a little lost.
AUSTER: Well, they’re not exactly lost. I mean, one is a drummer in band. Another is a graduate student getting her Ph.D. Miles is a bit lost. But I think it’s about this generation of young people who really have a rough road ahead of them in the America that exists today — shrinking job market, the difficulty of finding the kind of job they’ve qualified themselves for, but can’t find. And then the thing that nobody really talks about in America is the burden of debt that most young people have after they’ve finished college. And I feel that all these young people are somehow victims of this pinched state that we are all living in.
RYSSDAL: They are victims, though, you have to point out, of our generations — yours and mine — who have come before and sort of run this system and set it up that way.
AUSTER: Absolutely. And I don’t want to get in a long discussion about what we should do in America, but I really feel that we’re doing great harm by charging so much to go to school.
RYSSDAL: I wonder what you think about this statement: That this is a book, in name, about the financial crisis and, in name, about housing and foreclosure and how we survive, but it is most of all about a book about how people relate to each other. And the question that flows from that is, how has this crisis and the economy of the last three years changed the way people relate to each other?
AUSTER: Well people who don’t have work tend to be dejected people, frustrated people. So I would think that their behavior would be very much affected by their situations. In terms of families, one has been reading all kinds of articles about how many young people are living at home with their parents because they don’t have work that pays enough to rent apartments with. So in one way, maybe this is a good thing. Maybe it’s keep families closer. Or maybe it’s a bad thing in that you have a lot of frustrated, young people dying to get out of the houses they lived in as children.
RYSSDAL: Is there hope though? Do you think that coming out of this, and your experiences thinking about our situation in this crisis, you know, do we have economic hope?
AUSTER: I think so. The fact is I’ve been around a long time now and I’ve seen things going up and down. This is the process of capitalism — crashes, depressions, recessions, and then recoveries. We’ll see what happens. The election has just taken place, everything is changing once again. We’ll see if anyone can come up with any interesting ideas.
RYSSDAL: The latest book by Paul Auster is called “Sunset Park.” Paul, thanks very much.
AUSTER: Thank you.
RYSSDAL: If that opening paragraph Paul read for us got you interested, the whole first chapter of “Sunset Park” is on our website.
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