Sundown on Sunset Park

A Staff Review of Paul Auster’s New Novel by Ward

A mere year after having published the excellent Invisible, Paul Auster presents us with Sunset Park, his fourteenth novel since debuting twenty-three years ago with the still-fantastic New York Trilogy. During the years that have followed, Auster has managed to maintain a strong following, supplying his readers with a steady stream of fiction and non-fiction, with a couple of screenplays, poetry collections and translations thrown in for good measure. Together, these add up to a pretty respectable oeuvre, and looking back we see that few years have gone by without Auster publishing something or other. Among these have been some unquestionable gems (last year’s Invisible most definitely included), but too often now I have seen Auster repeating himself, be that in content or in form.

The New York Trilogy was a perfect mix of experimental yet readable writing and postmodern contemplation, and part of its success can be ascribed to the fact that Auster not only questioned the meaning of self in these three novellas, but laid bare his own self in the process. Baseball (one of his passions), crime fiction (another one of his interests) New York City (his hometown) and even his own name (literally used in the novel) all came together to form a unique, intelligent and utterly captivating whole. Add to this the plethora of literary allusions he incorporated into the novel, and a critical as well as a popular classic was born.

Ever since then, we have seen many of these biographical elements return in his work, and to this process of recycling Sunset Park is no exception. Like so many of his novels, the story is (largely) set in New York City (even deriving its title from one of the city’s neighborhoods), is rife with literary allusions, and features more references to American baseball players than a European reader not that interested in sports to begin with could possibly hope to handle.

The fact that Auster once again sticks to a formula that has proved successful in the past is not something I necessarily object to, but in Sunset Park his use of the abovementioned elements comes across not as a strength but as a crutch for him to lean on—safe ground for the writer to retreat to when inspiration fails to come knocking. The literary and cultural allusions feel empty and contrived, New York City is no longer the enticing labyrinth once roamed by New York Trilogy’s Quinn, and the baseball anecdotes are little more than filler.

As far as Auster is concerned though, “baseball is a universe as large as life itself, and therefore all things in life, whether good or bad, whether tragic or comic, fall within its domain.” And so we find protagonist Miles Heller “flipping through the Baseball Encyclopedia in search of odd and amusing names,” while way too many anecdotes regarding the sport and its practitioners keep popping up throughout the story—without actually adding all that much. Thus, the extent to which you will enjoy reading this novel at least partly depends on the extent to which you agree with the statement I have quoted above.

The actual story of Sunset Park is pretty straightforward, however, and it is quite refreshing to see Auster telling a story without relying too heavily on the experimental narration that he has become known for. In short: twenty-something Miles Heller has left New York because of something that has happened in his past, and currently resides in south Florida where he holds an uninspiring if not downright depressing job cleaning out the houses of people who have been evicted because they could no longer make rent. In Florida he meets the love of his life in the form of high school student Pilar Sanchez, after which circumstances force him to relocate. Since Bing Nathan, one of Miles’s friends, conveniently has a room on offer in the house in Sunset Park that he and a few others have squatted, Miles returns to New York to confront the demons of his past and come to terms with himself so he can finally start thinking about a future.

The above synopsis might lead you to believe that Sunset Park is very much a human story, and in a way it is, especially when compared to some of Auster’s other work, in which certain characters have been so explicitly fictitious and two-dimensional that it is hard to think of them as anything more than words on a page—think of Black, Brown and Blue in New York Trilogy’s Ghosts, for example. The problem with Sunset Park, however, is that its characters are fairly two-dimensional as well. Yet where in Ghosts this two-dimensionality was intentional, the explicit fictitiousness of the characters serving a clear purpose, the characters that make up Sunset Park come across as merely underdeveloped, and largely fail to come alive or to inspire any real emotional involvement on the reader’s part. Therefore I cannot help but think that Sunset Park was somewhat of a rush job for Auster, a half-hearted attempt at getting a new book out on the shelves without bothering too much about content or quality. This is not to say that Sunset Park is entirely without merits, but rather that the manuscript would have benefitted from some serious editing and revision.

Interestingly—and, in contrast to the novel he actually presents us with here, ironically—Auster spends quite a few paragraphs on convincing the reader of the power and importance of books and reading. For this he uses Morris Heller (father of Miles) as his mouthpiece, who runs a small publishing house and envisions writing a book called Forty Years in the Desert: Publishing Literature in a Country Where People Hate Books. And as if this title is not enough of a hyperbole for Auster, we find Morris talking about wanting to “protect [his employees] and make them understand that in spite of the idiot culture that surrounds them, books still count, and the work they are doing is important work, essential work.”

I wholeheartedly agree with the statement that books and reading are important, essential even. It just seems to me that the best way to go about defending and propagating literature is by actually writing it, not by complaining about idiot cultures and the state of affairs in a mediocre novel. Let us just hope that by writing Sunset Park Auster has managed to get whatever it was that was bugging him out of his system, so that he will be able to focus on quality again next time.