Friday, January 28, 2011

Sunset Park, by Paul Auster

Sunset Park, the latest work by Paul Auster, is a well-crafted story set during the economic crisis of 2008. It interweaves the lives of several characters, many illegally squatting in an abandoned Brooklyn house. The location of the house is an ungentrified area called Sunset Park.

In Sunset Park, the downward economic trend is also a metaphor for the plummeting aspirations and finances of the book's characters. Miles Heller was once an ambitious college student at an Ivy League university. He still possesses the intellectual bent of his father, a literary publisher. But his life is changed irrevokably when he pushes his step-brother into the road during a heated argument. Guilt-ridden, he becomes increasingly morose and angry, finally running away in his junior year and living hand-to-mouth doing odd jobs in different states.

When the book opens, we find him working for a Florida company that clears out repossessed homes. While other employees help themselves to the once-treasured possessions, Miles takes photographs of them. It is as though he is trying to preserve the dignity of those objects as well as their owners.

But just as Miles is a slim, fastidious, and brooding man of 28, his friend, Bing Nathan, is boisterous, large, and somewhat uncouth. He is a foil. Yet, both men are guided by strong moral compasses. It is Bing who has kept in touch with the parents of Miles throughout the years of self-exile. And like Miles, Bing seeks to restore old items that are often tossed away. He owns the Hospital for Broken Things, where he frames pictures and fixes old attic treasures, relics of bygone years.

Miles ultimately leaves Florida and comes back to New York in order to escape arrest for statutory rape. He leaves the love of his life, seventeen year old Pilar Sanchez, hoping to marry her on her eighteenth birthday.

Pilar is an interesting girl, mature beyond her years. Miles tutors her, encouraging her to go to the best colleges. Certainly, she is under-age, but we never get a sense that Miles is doing anything prurient. He is nurturing, although, he does admit that his feelings for her are both paternal and sexual. It is not surprising that she is the age at which his youth ended.

Other people in the book are equally interesting. Mile's father, Morris, is well-drawn as a successful and cerebral man who has followed his son throughout his self-imposed exile. Mile's mother, a Broadway actress who abandoned him as a baby, is surprisingly sympathetic. Auster allows the reader to see her side of things, while understanding the root of Mile's temper and deep-seated anger.

The two women who share the house with Bing and Miles are rather quirky characters. Ellen Bryce is a part-time realtor and artist, coping with her own inner demons. Alice Bergstrom is her friend. She is working on her dissertation. Both women are happy to live rent-free before they move on to the next stage of their lives.

The interplay of all the characters makes this book quite interesting. Although each chapter is written in the third person, Auster's writing allows us to not feel like mere observers. We genuinely care about the characters and their fates.

Auster masterfully explores the theme of choice, and the impact our decisions have on us and those around us. At the same time, he seems to question the notion of free-will, and one wonders how many of our acts are predetermined by our inherent natures. Once again, Paul Auster has written a spellbinding exploration of the human psyche.

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1 comment:

  1. what an awful book. written in childlike form (i guess since in painting i prefer rembrandt to pollock, i'm not ready for simplistic writing either) . i finished it in 3 hours! i never felt the need or desire to dwell on an image or a character. folks say auster is a prolific writer - i can see why, he doesn't weave a pattern, he provides lists of facts, no intricate story with plot lines that all pay off in the end. it is like reading a cookbook. most of the book is just the listing of recipes for 4 or 5 meals. it is boring. only towards the end was i at all provoked to be interested - it was like - "now here is how the food tastes when it comes out of the oven". but it wasn't good enough to satisfy me. and also, if you're going to use "facts" in your work of fiction - keep them accurate and not stereotyped misconceptions about the Sunset Park community from elitist Park Slopers. I wish the novel used "unnamed neighborhood in unnamed big city" as its locale.


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