Can a book be about so many things that it leaves readers wondering what the book is really about? That’s what novelist Malena Watrous suggests in her New York Times review of Paul Auster’s Sunset Park. Auster’s book frames classic themes — brother-against-brother, father-and-son alienation, Lolita-like attraction, fading beauty and failing endeavor — inside contemporary circumstances and a rich collection of characters.
The story is framed by the foreclosure crisis. Miles Heller, 28, works in “home preservation.” He is part of a crew that goes into abandoned South Florida real estate and clean it up so that the owners–the banks–can resell it as quickly as possible. Miles brings his camera and documents the wreckage left behind by the displaced families. The images he takes read like a litany: “…sofas, silk lingerie, caulking guns, thumbtacks, plastic action figures, tubes of lipstick, rifles, discolored mattresses , knives and forks, poker chips, a stamp collection, and a dead canary lying at the bottom of its cage.”
Miles also has a girlfriend, a bookish, 17-year-old orphan who leaves her older sisters to live with him. She does not want children, not yet, and denies his member (but nothing else) “the mommy hole.” The alternative? “The funny hole.” (Watrous, without mentioning the “funny hole,” suggests that the couple’s sexual limitations make their relationship not “fully real.” Does prudishness affect her judgment?)
In a somewhat ironic touch, Pilar, the girlfriend, suggests that The Great Gatsby was better for its narration from Nick Carraway rather than if Fitzgerald had used an omniscient narrator. Sunset Park‘s omniscient narrator looks into Miles’ mind and finds him wondering what made this young woman so different than the rest of her family. When circumstances involving Pilar’s older sisters force Miles to flee Florida, he accepts an old friend’s offer to move in to an abandoned Brooklyn house with a clan of squatters.
There, we meet Alice Bergstrom who is writing a thesis on the relationships between American men and women as mirrored in books and movies from 1945 to 1947. Another housemate, Ellen Brice, is living out the guilt of sex she had with a sixteen-year-old boy she was nanny for eight years back. Bing, the group’s rabble-roused leader, despises America’s throwaway culture and runs The Hospital for Broken Things, a mechanical metaphor for the broken lives that surround him. Then there is Miles’ father Morris, a publisher on the brink of losing his business and his current wife, and desperately seeking to reunite with his lost son. Miles’ step-mother, an aging actress, is looking to re-establish her career, this time on Broadway.
Watrous finds such wealth a distraction while concentrating on the book’s Lolita aspect and a certain contrary optimism that defines each of the skeins that Auster knits together. She argues with the way Auster tells his story; revolving third-person omniscience that includes little dialogue. She suggests Auster’s goal was “to write a conventionally satisfying novel while bucking many of the conventions of how to write fiction.”
May we respectfully disagree? Auster isn’t avoiding convention. He’s writing around it, his talk-deficient narrative with its psychological omniscience moves quickly across emotional territory but covers little time. It’s involving because it’s involved. Emotional because of its optimistic contrariness.
As for Watrous, you might suspect she was writing under the influence of envy, if writers ever did such a thing. But let’s just say she doesn’t find Auster’s style to her liking. The Rabbit likes Auster’s approach because it accelerates the narrative. The present musing speeds back and forth through time. Past events and thinking are revealed, future events anticipated. Allowing various persons to be the focus broadens the story and serves as a sort of fact-check on personal belief.
When dialogue does appear, always without quotation marks, it underscores character. When the notice eventually comes that the squatters will have to vacate, Bing’s radicalism ignites. But it isn’t hot enough to burn away his delusions. “They’ve given us notice, and now they’ll forget about us for a while. In a month or so, they’ll be back with another piece of paper, which we’ll tear up and throw on the floor again. And another time, and another time after that, and maybe even another time after that. The city marshals won’t do anything to us.” The statement defines Bing’s entire life.
Sunset Park is a book about healing wounds and repairing lives (much attention is paid to William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives which follows the troubles of three men returning to their women after World War II). It’s also a book about living in the moment, something Miles and Morris decide to do along the way, something Bing has always been committed to. Set against the backdrop of lost and abandoned homes, it’s a complicated piece of genius that frames timeless themes among contemporary situations. Too optimistic, as Watrous claims? Maybe she didn’t read to the end.–Cabbage Rabbit