Paul Auster | Sunset Park (Henry Holt & Co.)

Equally annoying, this novel seems determined always to tell and never to show, a choice that makes for effortless reading but leaves very little impression once you’ve finished.

Paul Auster is getting to be the literary equivalent of Woody Allen, churning out a new work every year that attracts critical attention. Like judges on the U.S. Supreme Court, once you’re designated as a ‘Significant Artist’ it’s a lifetime appointment, and anything you do is presumed significant until proven otherwise.
Reputation is fine but ultimately every book has to stand on its own merits, and there’s not much to recommend Sunset Park unless you wish to be an Auster completist; it feels more like a demonstration of fiction-writing technique than a real effort to communicate anything important. The narrative voice might well be labeled third-person deadpan, since it’s primarily concerned with describing outward appearances and events. Equally annoying, this novel seems determined always to tell and never to show, a choice that makes for effortless reading but leaves very little impression once you’ve finished.
The central character in Sunset Park is Miles Heller, an Ivy-league dropout working in Florida as a “trash-out” man who cleans up homes that have been repossessed. For reasons not entirely clear even to himself, he obsessively takes pictures of the possessions they leave behind (on a digital camera, despite the fact that he does not own a computer). He falls in lust with an underage Hispanic girl named Pilar Sanchez who moves in with him, although she sets strict limits on their bedroom activities: he is allowed to penetrate “the funny hole” but never “the mommy hole.” The arrangement is apparently satisfactory to both (although in truth we never hear much from Pilar) until her older sister threatens to set the law on him.
Needing to get out of town, Miles heads north and moves into a communal squat in Sunset Park, Brooklyn with three other young adults whose identifying characteristics seem to have been assigned by market research. Bing Nathan is a hipster who considers himself an intellectual and worships the past: he plays jazz because “jazz is dead and only the happy few are interested in it any more,” and runs a shop called The Hospital for Broken Things, which sells bygone technology like typewriters and vacuum-tube radios (repaired by Bing), but actually makes most of his money from framing pictures. Ellen Brice is a real estate agent who is also a spare-time pornographic artist, and Alice Bergstrom is an ABD film student at Columbia with a part-time job at the PEN American Center. The other major character is Morris Heller, Miles’ father, a successful publisher.
Middle-brow cultural references are salted throughout Sunset Park like Cracker Jack prizes. Alice is writing her dissertation on The Best Years of Our Lives, which provides an analogy for Sunset Park’s characters who are having difficulty finding a place for themselves in their own world. The first connection between Miles and Pilar is that they’re both reading The Great Gatsby, and wouldn’t you know it, they’ve both also been traumatized by automobile accidents. The incident that resulted in the death of Miles’ brother recalls the key incident in John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace. Miles’ father first sees his mother playing Cordelia in King Lear at the Circle Rep, and she’s performing Beckett’s Happy Days on Broadway when he returns to New York.
Brand-name schools also make their expected appearance. Miles is worthy of our attention because he was a star baseball player at Stuyvesant and attended Brown, and even the most minor (white) character comes with a pedigree. We are informed that Suki Rothstein, daughter of one of Morris Heller’s clients, graduated summa cum laude from the University of Chicago and conducted a seminar about her work at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice shortly before killing herself—she is mentioned because Morris attends her funeral.
The most disappointing thing about Sunset Park is the laziness of its prose. When Auster is on his game no one writes more precisely, so it’s disheartening that banality is the dominant tone of this novel. Lists are substituted for invention, so a Jewish delicatessen is described as offering “the all but vanished cuisine of chopped liver, matzo-ball soup, corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, pot roasts, cheese blintzes, sour pickles.” Similarly we are treated to lists of the damages that evicted clients visit on their former homes and of the objects Morris removes from them and photographs, from “books, shoes, and oil paintings” to “a dead canary lying at the bottom of its cage.”
Running a close second in disappointment is Sunset Park’srefusal to engage with modern American life in all of its multi-cultural splendor. Sunset Park is a real neighborhood in Brooklyn, but you’d never guess from the descriptions in this novel that it’s primarily non-white or that only 13 percent of residents have a college degree. This is partly an expression of the limited point of view of the characters, but it’s also a flaw of the writer. Even Pilar and her family are described in shorthand, as if they weren’t worth more than a minimum of the author’s time and effort. Pilar is “a small adolescent girl wearing tight, cut-off shorts, sandals, and a skimpy halter top” who lives with her three sisters, one of whom is studying to be a beautician, one who works as a bank teller, and the third of whom is a cocktail lounge hostess who “sometimes sleeps with the customers for money.”
Sunset Park revisits themes Auster has treated in better work including forbidden sex, an obsession with taking pictures of apparently unimportant things and the cultural trappings of the privileged classes. Ultimately it’s not a bad read as long as your expectations are correctly calibrated; it will pass the time but won’t leave you with much to think about afterwards. | Sarah Boslaugh

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