- By Paul Auster - Henry Holt
- Sunset Park: A Novel
Paul Auster has been the most literary and most New York-centric of the prominent novelists of his generation. His new novel, still set mostly in New York, is considered a departure: more linear, more story-oriented, less "postmodern," whatever that may mean anymore. Perhaps, like Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, it is responding to what lit critic Chad Harbach has identified as increasing publishing pressure to be more accessible.
Whatever. I enjoyed reading this novel. While some may regard references to The Great Gatsby or the movie The Best Years of Our Lives as postmodern, I regard them (apart from their modernist literary functions) as reflecting real life -- books and movies are part of some people's actual lives (and not all of them in New York), which may influence the course of those lives, and become part of the texture of particular times in their lives. The baseball references and the lists of mismatched but famous people buried in the same Brooklyn cemetery were fascinating in themselves, and examples of what fascinates real people.
All the touches of context, from the main protagonist's job at the novel's beginning of cleaning out foreclosed homes in Florida to his friend's Hospital for Broken Things, ring true as well as being nicely literary. By the time the narrative settles on the characters in their 20s and 30s who are living in an odd little abandoned house in Brooklyn's Sunset Park, we're in the company of people dealing honorably and bravely with personal demons (both given and as a result of experiences) as well as societal failures and portents in a very contemporary period that sure looks like decay.
So though there may be layers of literary symbolism at work, I read the novel as an organic whole reflecting the lives of unusual but convincing characters in these times. The world of the novel is richer and perhaps closer to my sympathies than Franzen's in Freedom.
What prevents me from being a wholehearted advocate for this novel is the ending. Though the violence was almost preordained, and the hero's violent reaction at least dimly foreshadowed, his response to this situation in the final paragraphs of the novel seems just all wrong. Maybe I projected too much into this character, and though I don't see these paragraphs as stating as definitive a course as some reviewers did, I felt the novel collapse rather than end, or even just stop. It was also the one time that I felt a literary intrusion -- an attempt to manipulate something for literary or symbolic effect. In short, it ruined the experience for me. Maybe I'll take a more mature attitude on re-reading it. But that won't happen for a while.