I had high hopes going into Paul Auster's Sunset Park because as a friend put it, "Everyone loves Paul Auster." So when I finished reading the novel on the train back from New Year's weekend, I wondered, What is wrong with me?
Miles Heller starts the book off for us, and Auster is strong with descriptions of the abandoned houses still cluttered with abandoned things, shells of lives no longer afforded after the beginning of the 2008 economic collapse. The descriptions of Miles Heller are promising, but fail to reach deeper than the surface of his thoughts.
In 308 pages we are expected to interact with and understand six characters. That number doesn't take into account peripheral characters such as Morris Heller's wife Willa - who is undergoing a breakdown - and Miles Heller's under-aged lover Pilar.
The novel's elements: Economic collapse, adultery, illegal romances, a prodigal son motif, love triangles, glamorized poverty - all clashed for me. They came at me too quickly to absorb, keeping any of them from eliciting any reaction stronger than a grimace before I was shuffled onto the next character and batch of terrible, unfortunate circumstances.
The situations are unique, and there are deeper levels I so desperately wanted to explore - to a point where I questioned my abilities as a reader. Truth is, it's the writer's responsibility to carry the story (or in this case, stories) to the end.
I was told how intelligent, studious, and impressive Pilar, Miles's lover, was; how the way she carried herself and her intellect relieved the other characters’ initial discomfort with a relationship between a 17-year-old and a 28-year-old. I was never given the chance, however, to judge her for myself. She is protected, portrayed only in the thoughts and judgments of characters who, as it turns out, I couldn't get enough of a grasp on to trust either.
Miles's father, Morris Heller's own romantic relationships provide no evidence of consequence, either. He presents himself as a victim: He commits one act of adultery during which he claims to have not been able to experience much pleasure because of his guilt for betraying his wife. He then proceeds to rely on that questionable fact of his crippling guilt as reason to sympathize with him when his wife is cold to him. We are supposed to praise him for dropping everything and returning to Europe when she calls him crying. We are supposed to pity him when Willa cuts his son - her stepson - out of her heart, making him choose between them.
I do not mean to attack these two men because they are men, but rather because they, too, are not fully realized as aren’t their women. I consistently felt I was supposed to sympathize with these people without being given a reason they deserved sympathy other than being told they did.
Two of the women in the book who are given their own sections, Ellen and Alice, are introduced as good friends, yet they tip toe around each other with an awkwardness that doesn't suggest anything deeper than two unfamiliar people. If they had been described as two women so out of touch with themselves that they couldn't be in touch with others, I could have accepted their superficial relationship. Instead, they are heralded as close friends - a relationship, once again, I felt instructed to believe rather than compelled to.
Ellen Brice, one of these women, is described as small and fragile throughout, from various perspectives. She is talented but without spark. Her spark comes later when she runs into the man she had an affair with when she was 22 and he was 17. Their affair ended in a pregnancy she kept secret. After their reunion, she begins wearing makeup and tighter clothing; she feels beautiful for the first time since the abortion. The consequences she felt from that affair are ominous and encompassing until she finds a boyfriend, when they seem to disappear altogether.
My distaste for this novel is not simply because women are underrepresented - that is a world that exists and about which books must be written. In Sunset Park none of the characters were full to me, each of them gipped, as I felt upon finishing.
By Paul Auster
Story/ies – 6
The characters’ situations are unique and great fodder for a novel, but each of them falls flat under the weight of the responsibility of character that fails to be met.
Style – 5
There are simply too many things going on for the novel-in-stories structure. Auster’s straight-forward language – while failing the characters and, ultimately, the reader – has moments of beauty and description worth having read.
General – 6
It’s a quick read, partly because of Auster’s style and partly because you’re frantically looking for what it all means, pausing only to flip back to see which quiet, withdrawn female roommate is which. I recommend just going to Sunset Park in Brooklyn and looking at people; you'll probably feel way more connected to the randos on the street than to the smorgasbord of Auster's characters.
Overall – 5.67