At the end of Paul Auster’s new novel Sunset Park, the narrative inhabits the mind of young protagonist Miles Heller. Riding in the back of a cab through Brooklyn, Miles’s thoughts glide through a slippery tangle of ideas. In a long sentence that runs on for almost two pages, Miles’s consciousness shifts from his own physical pain to a character in the movie The Best Years of Our Lives, a soldier named Homer who returns home with hooks for hands. This thought blends into a riff on the poet Homer, which in turn leads Miles, long estranged from his family, to figure himself a Telemachus now reunited with his father. And yet the homecoming cannot be; thoughts of Homer slip into thoughts about homelessness, his own homelessness, his friends’ homelessness, not metaphorical but literal. He then thinks about the homeless and displaced people across the country (Sunset Park is set square in the middle of the recent Great Recession), causing his mind to move back to the beginning of the novel, when he worked “trashing out” foreclosed homes in South Florida. The idea of “home” transmutes finally to “hope” as the cab crosses the Brooklyn Bridge–yet the idea (and the novel) is suspended in a strange, sad limbo.
I begin my review with Auster’s final sentence because it delineates many of Sunset Park’s themes, settings, and motifs. At its core–if such a novel can be said to have a core–Sunset Park asks its readers what “home” might mean. Is home a geographic location, a center that resonates with personal and cultural significance? Is home a place with a person you love? Can home be in your head? Is home where your family is? And, even more problematic, what exactly constitutes a family?
The founding trauma of the book, which is to say Miles’s founding trauma, is a radically ambiguous moment of violence: as a teenager, in a heated fight with his step-brother on a country road, Miles pushes the boy. At the same moment, a car flies down the road and kills him. Did Miles mean to kill his brother? At the moment of his anger, how could he not psychologically, if only temporarily, wish for the young man’s death? Did he know the car was coming? Miles cannot deal with the trauma and soon drops out of college and drops out of life. Unlike the biblical Cain, Miles’s exile is self-imposed. He breaks contact with his parents and thus breaks a family that was already twice broken; first, in his parents’ divorce and his mother’s move across the country to California; and second, in the death of his step-brother. Miles relegates himself to hard and unrewarding manual labor, wandering aimlessly around the country. It’s only after he meets a young girl named Pilar that he is able to reconstitute the idea of a family–of a self who can be in a family.
Pilar is a high school student. She is a minor. Auster does little to justify the social acceptability of Miles’s love for (and sodomy of) Pilar; instead, he repeatedly invokes the idea that other characters see the “truth” of the love by simply watching the pair. This is easily the book’s greatest weakness. Auster wants to communicate the idea that in loving Pilar, Miles is able to love a young version of himself–and thus forgive his young self (significantly, Pilar is the same age that Miles was when he pushed his step-brother)–yet the essential predatory narcissism of this “love” remains largely unremarked upon. Even Pilar’s caretaker, her oldest sister, is amenable to the romance–that is, until Miles refuses to keep bringing her high-end items that he recovers from the foreclosed homes he’s “trashing out.” Miles is again exiled, this time from his makeshift home with Pilar. He returns for the first time in seven years to New York City to stay in a squatter’s house with three other twentysomethings.
There’s a kind of silly Bohemian romanticism to the squat in Sunset Park. The project is helmed by would-be avant-jazzman, Bing Nathan, a notorious ranter who improbably subsists on funds he obtains from running his store, the Hospital for Broken Things, where he repairs typewriters and other antique artifacts. Bing thinks his friend Miles will be a perfect fit in the house–and he’s right: the other squatters love him. There’s Ellen, a skittish realtor (!) who aspires to become a pornographic painter, and Alice, an ABD trying to finish her doctoral thesis (on The Best Years of Our Lives, of course). Both women fall for Miles in different ways, although Auster’s writing never once shows why this might be.
Bing has other reasons for getting Miles back to NYC–he wants to reunite the Heller family. He’s been secretly communicating with Miles’s father Morris for years. Morris, who runs his own literary publishing house, is easily the most achieved character in Sunset Park, or at least its most realistic. Although the plot gets bogged down with his own marital difficulties (and other sundry tragedies that echo the “loss of children” theme), Morris’s narrative is the most focused and convincing section of the novel. His sad tone moves beyond melancholy but halts at bitterness, even as he reflects upon the myriad regrets of his life and the fearful future that yawns ahead (things are going badly with his wife; the publishing industry is in peril). Although Miles’s mother Mary-Lee figures less in the novel, she is also a more convincing and sympathetic character than the young people who squat in Sunset Park. Like Morris, she’s reflective, distanced enough from the young self who abandoned her only son, yet analytical enough to comprehend its traumatic effect. Mary-Lee and Morris, with their regrets and fears and hopes are far more aesthetically concrete and satisfying than the novel’s twentysomethings, who at times seem like caricatures or puppets or placeholders.
In Auster’s hands, the Sunset Park gang reflects an unrealistic idealization of youthful and artistic resistance to a predatory capitalist culture. Still, they provide him occasion for some of Sunset Park’s finest riffs, whether he’s ventriloquizing Bing (rage, rage against the lies of the man) or exploring Ellen’s enchanting perversions. Alice’s thesis on The Best Years of Our Lives (a film that somehow everyone in the book has not just seen but seen repeatedly and even analyzed) gives Auster ample material to explore how different generations face trauma, whether it’s the alienation experienced by WWII soldiers returning to a world that seems to have left them behind, or the crises of young people trying find homes in an America tottering on financial collapse.
With its ironic title, The Best Years pairs nicely with the other narrative that informs Sunset Park, Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days--a play that Mary-Lee just happens to be performing on Broadway at the time of Miles’s return. Auster–through his erudite characters–riffs frequently and wisely on both the film and the play, and these are some of the finer moments of Sunset Park; one almost wishes that Auster would have abandoned the conceit of a novel completely and just write some kind of essay with his material. Sunset Park repeats the themes of alienation, loneliness, separation, and stasis that we find in Happy Days and The Best Years, yet it veers closer to the film’s melodrama than Beckett’s absurdity. Perhaps this is a fault of form: overloaded with characters, Sunset Park sags at times, asking its reader to care about yet another over-educated, privileged New Yorker whose artistic ambitions have stalled out. A concession to Beckett’s minimalism would have done wonders, and perhaps deflated some of Sunset Park’s murky self-seriousness.
The highlight of the novel is Auster’s syntax. His keen sentences, often unfurling for pages at a time, move from concrete to abstract, to present to past to future, to inside and outside, with a precision and skill that is admirable to say the least. Sure, he hits the occasional clunker–some of the book’s early dialog in Florida is particularly painful, as is a moment late in the book when Morris refers to his wife and friend as “the walking wounded,” a cliché that neither Morris or Auster should let slip–but there’s a smoothness of vision that unites the book from sentence to sentence.
Still, syntax is not content, and Sunset Park left me wanting something–more? Something different? I’m not sure what that something is, which is a precarious criticism at best. Auster’s vision of stasis, of limbo, of the impossibility of a real homecoming runs deeply contrary to the traditions and conventions of Western story-telling: in short, we are trained to desire and look for resolution. Auster’s observations–a continuation of Happy Days and The Best Years, in this sense–are precisely the right kind of psychological dissatisfaction we must experience for this novel to be “true” in an artistic sense. However, the aesthetic dissatisfaction I experienced at the end of the book seems of a separate nature. Chalk it up to too many characters and subplots, perhaps. In any case, Sunset Park made me think and made me feel, which is really the job of art–even if those thoughts and feelings are often negative and unpleasant. Perhaps it’s my own critical failing, but in the end I wanted a light to lead me out of the Auster’s limbo.
Sunset Park is new in hardback this month from Henry Holt.