This is my review of Sunset Park by Paul Auster.
Paul Auster has a gift for describing the thoughts and motivations of introspective people, written in lucid, page-turning prose. I like the way he reveals the story from the viewpoint of different characters, so that one can see their differing perspectives and assessments of each other. Although superficially quite slight and loose, the plot is actually quite carefully structured, with occasional highly dramatic events, made all the more so for being unexpected. At the end, I suddenly saw the relevance of the (for me somewhat tedious) anecdotes of past baseball heroes, whose hopes have been dashed by chance events.
I was struck by the accuracy of Auster’s insight into the mindset of young people who, despite their education, choose to squat in abandoned properties, rejecting the mindless materialism of modern day America, and opt to live “for the present” in a country for which they fear the future, with the recent horrors of 9/11, the war in Iraq, suppression of human rights, and the recent banking crisis.
In some ways the book is like a series of short stories or “pen portraits”, loosely held together by the charismatic but troubled Miles Heller, who drifts through life, traumatised by his guilt over the death of his step-brother. Some of the characters are more convincing than others, but I suspect readers would disagree on which are better drawn. I was bored by the constant reference to baseball and Ellen’s erotic drawing, and a bit irritated by the arguably pretentious, “you need to be in the know”, analysis of Becket’s “Happy Days” and the sections on “being a writer” – on which authors tend to dwell too much. The book is clearly based on thorough research, and I felt that at times it includes too many lists – lists of famous baseball players, names of deceased celebrities in a cemetery, and so on. I was intrigued to realise that “The Best Years of Our Lives” is a real and highly regarded film from the period after WW2, and Auster convinces me of its relevance in making a contrast between attitudes then and now.
Overall, I agree with the emerging view that this is worth reading, but somehow falls short of brilliance, perhaps because Auster is so brimming over with reflections and observations on life that it is hard to marshall them into a “perfect whole” without reducing the momentum and “narrative drive” of the work, as a novel.