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.

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