He Said That He Said What Was Said: 1,868 Words On Paul Auster’s “Sunset Park”

Posted by Nick Curley

Thumbing through the new Paul Auster novel he’d finished that morning, the reviewer’s fingers tap danced on the protagonist’s name: Miles Heller.  The pairing evoked a kind of jazzy Catch-22.  Such was Auster’s nature in this new book, Sunset Park: long sentences, simple words, referential and feigning depth, but ultimately stuck with mere sketches of characters and a meretricious climax.

The reviewer was foggy from waking up so early that morning to the sounds of young kids screaming and shooting baskets across the street.  He decided to get plot and character synopsis out of the way.  It was his least favorite part to write, and his least favorite part to get through in the reviews of others.  The night previous he’d read two reviews of the Auster and decided to be nothing like them.  He was surprised by the blurted spoilers found in these write-ups from the Guardian and the Independent.  He typed the phrase “Is this a British thing?” before thinking better of it.

Sunset Park, he began, starts with Brown-educated Miles Heller scraping by in Miami as a “trash out worker”: one who gathers up abandoned items from foreclosed homes.  Miles is running from his past, which he keeps hidden even from his seventeen year old girlfriend Pilar, to whom he’s passionately devoted.  Pilar’s older sister tries to blackmail Miles on the statutory shit storm any twenty-eight year old faces when sleeping with a minor.  He flees to New York, into the arms of his childhood friend Bing, professional junkman and ringleader of a squatter trio living in a deserted shack of a house in the Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood.  Along for the roommate ride are ex-Queens College adjunct Alice Bergstrom and Ellen Brice, a mousy painter consumed by her loneliness and graphic sexual daydreams.  Just over the bridge into Manhattan live Miles’ publisher father Morris and Broadway actress mom Mary-Lee.  Miles has been estranged from them by choice for the last seven years, but unbeknownst to him, Bing’s kept his folks abreast of their son’s well-being the whole time.

That’s plenty, thought the reviewer, happy enough just to have gotten in the word meretricious.  We’ll knead the rest of the plot in the way Auster does: through internal monologue, without quotation marks denoting dialogue or much in the way of segues from one perspective to the next.  It now seemed to the reviewer – a man not much younger than Miles – that Auster’s pursuit of monologue over dialogue or present-tense action allowed for Sunset Park’s characters to believe things about themselves and each other that the reader never gets to see, as Auster fails to illustrate them through behavior.

Ellen and Alice are initially interchangeable.  Why give the female leads such similar names, and why early on do they lack so much in the way of physical description?  The reviewer wonders if his readers will think the names Ellen and Alice as similar as he thinks them, but ultimately decides to keep the line.  He can remember who Alice is by her struggles with weight, her douche-chilling wannabe writer boyfriend, and her PhD thesis in progress on William Wyler’s 1949 film The Best Years of Our Lives.  In one awkwardly out of touch moment, Ellen and Alice discuss the film, one few twenty-somethings the reviewer knows have ever seen, let alone memorized the way these two have.  The result reads like James Agee and Roger Ebert chatting in a canoe, as Auster here struggles to write young women.  Ellen is particularly threadbare: we know she’s mopey, thin, graduated from Smith, and had an affair with her professor’s teenage son.  Despite getting a lot of screen time (page time?), beyond these quirks the two girls are practically furniture in their decrepit home.

It’s the trials of Morris Heller, independent book publisher, that prove most interesting and well-crafted.  Perhaps it’s that Auster better knows this man’s age and occupation, but there’s something in the handful of Morris-centric chapters that keeps a peppery bang-bang rhythm which never presumes or washes over the action with lazy depictions.  Despite being cast as the parent who doesn’t understand these kids today, Morris is actually the book’s most likable, reasoned, and developed character.  Unlike Auster’s Sunset kids, he lives in a world more interesting than the sound of his own voice, and he’s a welcome respite from their narrated doldrums.  Yet even here, when Morris attends a wake for his friend’s young daughter, we’re told that the friend gives a very moving eulogy.  Auster dares not write it down, but again assures us that the words were “passionate, complex, and clear-sighted,” especially under the circumstances.  It is as if Auster is mimicking profundity, relating to us in conversation a better book than the one he’s written.

Such assurances, in place of doing the actual leg work of crafting the astute prose that conjures vivid characters, plague Sunset Park.  Once Pilar shows up in Brooklyn, we are bluntly told that she is smart, yet she never actually says anything particularly clever, studied, or insightful.  The Heller family reunion, initially described as a collision course, comes and goes without a hitch.  Once literally all of his roommates have fallen in love with Miles, it seems as if Auster has in his mind’s eye cast an actor who is so boundless, effortlessly calming, and irrevocably cool that he excuses the prose’s failure to illustrate the character’s supposed charm.  “Miles scares her,” writes Auster of Ellen.  “The power he has over her scares her as much of anything has scared her in years, and yet she can’t stop herself from wanting him.”  Maybe it’s that Jordan Catalano factor, thinks the reviewer.  Or the plaintiveness with which he picks up trash.

Much of what makes Miles so allegedly foxy is his choice to reveal so little about himself.  A few nights earlier the reviewer was skimming Auster’s far superior novel City of Glass.  Near its beginning sits this passage:

“Every once in a while, he would suddenly feel what it had been like to hold the three-year old boy in his arms – but that was not exactly thinking, nor was it even remembering.  It was a physical sensation, an imprint of the past that had been left in his body, and he had no control over it.  These moments came less often now… things had begun to change for him.  He no longer wished to be dead.  At the same time, it cannot be said that he was glad to be alive.  But at least he did not resent it.”

Now that, thought the reviewer, is how you write alluring stoicism!  Proof that Auster can do it!  But while a work of Auster’s like City of Glass is like a shattered relic that a reader will love piecing together again, Sunset Park is an IKEA bookshelf: compartmentalized too neatly, buckling even under the weight of flimsy prose.

The book is constructed in such a way that you get basically three doses of Miles and two strong doses of every other character.  Episodic, thinks the reviewer: that’s the word.  In structure Sunset Park recalls Auster’s screenplays for Smoke and Blue in the Face, two films of meandering stories and multiple perspectives, disjointed yarns that are pleasant to read but not particularly profound.  Blue in the Face is the more on point comparison as it was a movie filmed simultaneously with Smoke, largely constructed out of improvised bits and pieces not used in the original film.  There, thought the young male reviewer: I’ve shown them that I’ve not only seen Auster’s big film, but also the obscure counterpart constructed out of deleted scenes.  When it came to movies and not much else, the reviewer thought himself a sharp young man.  Though despite it’s status as a classic, the reviewer had still never seen The Best Years of Our Lives, which truth be told is really why he found it unbelievable that characters in the book who are supposedly his age had seen it many times, and why he found Auster’s recurring parallels between the film and his characters’ lives a bit haphazard.

Thinking about movies always made the reviewer empathetic, and so he tried to think of some more nice things to say about the book.  Something honest that wouldn’t damn the novelist with faint praise.  Referring to himself in the third person in this attempt to gently lampoon Auster’s penchant for metafiction and introspection was getting old, and so he pressed on towards the finish:

“The book reviewer knew that there was at once something readily tiresome and yet still pleasant within the novel.  It felt to him a bit like Godard’s lesser films (and in truth, he was beginning to think there were few that weren’t lesser): the characters are simple, they don’t want very much, and much of what they do want is style over substance.  But they are nice faces for the book reviewer to rest his eyes on.  Just as he can watch a bored Anna Karina sigh and smoke while he checks his e-mail, he can cook up a stir fry while reading the book and not miss anything.  Like the stir fry itself, the book is not much of a meal, but it is soothing in its familiarity, and for this reason, cannot be totally discounted.”

The reviewer resolved to go back later and find a place to note that he also found the passages focused on Mary-Lee to be fairly good.  Auster’s textual playfulness towards her current role in the Beckett play Happy Days was often superb, and the way in which she rapidly gets ready to see her son for the first time in ages, then offers him too large a variety of dinner options felt very Mom-like.

Amongst the reviewer’s friends who’d read the book, its final ten to twenty pages always came up.  They are often described as the book’s major shortcoming.  The reviewer more or less agreed, for the climax is sudden and needlessly nihilistic, an attempt to sum up too much at once, making uncertain allusions to 9/11 and Wall Street and taking on the contrivances of bad cop dramas.  For all of Auster’s fondness for The Best Years of Our Lives as a model of the Greatest Generation, he wrote a novel without industry or will power, a book of contentment that does not matter.  It ends where it arbitrarily ends.  The changes the characters undergo are shallowly described.  It would be completely unfair to presume to know what Auster was thinking in writing the book, yet it seems to come, quite unsatisfactorily, from a place of happy ambivalence, as if he is a man with no dog in the fight.  The reviewer can think of no less engaging a place to write from, in challenging times, when so much is at stake.  As a member of Miles Heller’s generation, he found reading a care-free book about our modern hardships altogether strange: still more static in a country where too little is getting done because too little is being made.

There, he thought.  Now I can go bowling.