I had high hopes going into Paul Auster’s Sunset Park because as Shane 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?
The novel begins promising enough with Miles Heller and great descriptions of the abandoned houses still cluttered with abandoned things, shells of lives no longer afforded after the beginning of the 2008 economic collapse. I soon came to realize that despite wanting to get to know Miles Heller better, Auster failed to reach deeper than the surface of his thoughts.
Three hundred and eight pages simply weren’t enough to interact with and understand the six characters afforded their own sections. In addition to those six are peripheral characters such as Morris Heller’s wife Willa – who is undergoing a breakdown – and Miles Heller’s under-aged lover Pilar.
Elements of the novel clashed: Economic collapse, adultery, illegal romance, a prodigal son motif, love triangles, glamorized poverty. Each one came too quickly to absorb, preventing any stronger reaction than a grimace before I was shuffled onto the next character and batch of terrible, unfortunate circumstances. There are simply too many things going on for the novel-in-stories structure. I will admit that Auster’s straight-forward language – while failing the characters and, ultimately, the reader – has moments of beauty and description worth having read.
Though I found the situations unique, there were deeper levels I so desperately wanted to explore and each of them fell flat under the weight of the responsibility of character that failed to be met. It reached a point where I questioned my abilities as a reader. But the truth is, it’s the writer’s responsibility to carry the story (or in this case, stories) to the end.
Pilar, Miles’s lover, is intelligent, studious, and impressive, or at least I was told. 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. Instead, he is presented as a victim: Because of his guilt for betraying his wife, he was unable to experience any pleasure while committing adultery. He then proceeds to rely on that questionable fact of his crippling guilt as reason to sympathize with him when his wife responds with coldness. 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 are as unrealized as 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.
Ellen and Alice, two of the front-row six, 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.
May I just recommend going to Sunset Park in Brooklyn and looking at people on the street, to whom you’ll probably feel a stronger connection than I felt to Auster’s characters?
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