Claire's Reviews > Sunset Park

Sunset Park by Paul Auster
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Aug 02, 11

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How might our lives be different if we hadn’t made certain choices? This is the question that Paul Auster’s new haunting, profound, and heartfelt novel, Sunset Park (Henry Holt, $25.00), asks of its characters and readers.

Miles is a twenty-eight-year old from New York who dropped out of Brown after his junior year and disappeared from his family, burdened with guilt for accidently pushing his stepbrother Bobby in front of an oncoming car. His parents and step-parents trace his whereabouts through Miles’s letters to his childhood friend Bing, the only contact Miles has to his former life in New York during seven years of self imposed exile, as he pursues odd jobs and romances across the country.

The novel begins in Florida, where Miles is working to clear abandoned and foreclosed houses of their belongings (a process called “trashing out”), and where he falls in love with a high-school student named Pilar. When Pilar’s sister blackmails Miles for dating an underage girl, he decides to take up Bing’s invitation to move back to New York and live with Bing and two of his friends as squatters in an abandoned house in Brooklyn.

The house is located in Sunset Park—a neighborhood just south of Paul Auster’s own neighborhood, Park Slope. Miles settles into communal living with Ellen, a quiet artist who is recovering from the trauma of having an abortion after a love affair with a sixteen-year-old boy, and Alice, a tall woman who is writing her dissertation and is ending an increasingly dispassionate relationship with her boyfriend Jake. Miles misses Pilar and strives to keep their long-distance relationship healthy and strong.

The narrative of the novel shifts from the point of view of Miles to that of each of the housemates; to Miles’s father, Morris Heller, a book publisher; and to his mother, Mary-Lee, an actress, who has remarried and lives in California. Each character is dealing with their own mistakes, disappointments and heartbreak—failed marriages and relationships, the death of children and close friends. Each of the younger characters struggle to find work and a purpose that inspires them, while the older characters look back on their accomplishments with a newfound wisdom that human relationships are really what matter in life.

With this, his seventeenth novel, Auster writes with a self-assured, straightforward, and comfortable style. Even as he dexterously shifts between points of view, the narrative sweeps along with fantastic character sketches as we root for Miles and his triumphant, albeit imperfect, return to the loving arms of his family and friends.

Auster’s more poetic and meandering asides—such as when Ellen imagines the naked bodies of passersby she sees walking down the streets of Park Slope or Bing’s “Hospital for Broken Things,” the shop where he repairs typewriters and other odds and ends —add a richness to the story. In an interesting flash of foresight, Auster devotes ones of these asides to support for Lui Xiaobo, a cause that Alice works on as part of her job for American PEN. Ostensibly, Auster was writing the novel in 2008 when it takes place, and just this year, Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Price for his work as a literary critic, writer, and political activist. But while a detailed explanation of Alice’s thesis topic is interesting (“America in the years just after world War II, an examination of the relationships and conflicts between men and women as shown in books and films from 1945 to 1947, mostly popular crime novels and commercial Hollywood movies”), Auster allows himself to cross the line of meaningful digression with an involved four-page analysis of obscure characters in The Best Years of Our Lives, which is one of the films mentioned in her paper.

The novel succeeds in presenting the character of Miles Heller through the well-done portraits of the people who surround him, help him, love him, and live with him. We begin to understand his pain and reasons for leaving his family though his interactions with others. In the same way, a portrait of Auster the man emerges, thinly veiled behind his characters. One could see similarities between Auster and Renzo, the successful and prolific writer that Miles’s father publishes, or perhaps in Morris’s reaction to Miles’s childhood essay on To Kill a Mockingbird (in the acknowledgements Auster thanks his daughter for writing a paper on the same topic). Auster the man is lurking in the details: I imagine him walking through the streets of Park Slope to Sunset Park, doing research on the gravestones in Greenwood Cemetery, frequenting the Park Slope music venue Barbés, or stopping by the American PEN offices in SoHo.

In a conversation with his publisher Morris Heller, the writer Renzo muses with an idea for an essay in that sounds a lot like the underlying exploration in Sunset Park, an idea concerned with “things that don’t happen, the lives not lived, the wars not fought, the shadow worlds that run parallel to the world we take to be the real world, the not-said and the not-done, the not-remembered.”

In the end, the novel leaves the reader with an optimistic conclusion, and the answer to all of the mistakes, regrets, and disappointments that each character struggles with is the sense that community and unconditional love of family and friends provide a collective sense of redemption. Even when the things we thought most important crumble beneath us, there is always possibility of forging forward when life, perhaps particularly in New York, seems “unlivable,” and that, with each passing moment, a new choice is possible.
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