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Nov 22, 2010

Book Review: Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Sunset Park by Paul Auster
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published November 9th, 2010 by Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN 0805092862
Review copy provided by the publisher
The Burton Review Rating: = "Interesting premise, someone else might like it"

Luminous, passionate, expansive, an emotional tour de force:

Sunset Park follows the hopes and fears of a cast of unforgettable characters brought together by the mysterious Miles Heller during the dark months of the 2008 economic collapse.
An enigmatic young man employed as a trash-out worker in southern Florida obsessively photographing thousands of abandoned objects left behind by the evicted families.
A group of young people squatting in an apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
The Hospital for Broken Things, which specializes in repairing the artifacts of a vanished world.
William Wyler's 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives.
A celebrated actress preparing to return to Broadway.
An independent publisher desperately trying to save his business and his marriage.
These are just some of the elements Auster magically weaves together in this immensely moving novel about contemporary America and its ghosts. Sunset Park is a surprising departure that confirms Paul Auster as one of our greatest living writers.

This is one of those books that I had seen generating some buzz in bookish newsletters, and was surprised to learn that the author has quite a collection of published works. Before I started reading Sunset Park, I saw that there were four and five star ratings for Auster's newest novel, which is always a happy sign of good things to come, although 'happy' certainly would not be the right term for it given the theme of the novel. I normally stay within the confines of historical fiction, but every once in awhile I enjoy a piece of contemporary work to take a break from my regular reads.

Americans today are not the same happy Americans of a few decades ago; there are many of us who have become economically challenged through no real fault of our own. Yes, I am one of them, which is why I was initially drawn to the plot when the galley was being offered. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and you either have money or don't. Paul Auster's story focuses on some individuals who don't have money, although the first character he introduced comes from a wealthy family but chooses not to divulge that fact to his girlfriend. Miles Heller is the central character that connects the other characters that author creates, and Miles is the one character that I did not despise. His father is pretty cool, even though Miles has exited from his life for the last seven and a half years. The storyline about Miles' and his family issues was what pulled me into the novel and begged me to keep going, no matter how vexed I became.

The synopsis begins with the description as being "luminous". I would replace that with something like sad, broken, damaged, or dark. And as far as "emotional tour de force": it evoked emotions from me once, when a family friend died late in 2008 in the novel and there was a phrase that mentioned there were many deaths that year. My own father was one of them, and so my grief was lit a bit more at that point in the novel. Not incredibly enlightening, not moving, but depressing is the storyline of the group of have-nots who live rent-free at an abandoned house in Sunset Park, New York, just waiting for the authorities to kick them out. The writing itself was the main draw to the novel for me: it wasn't like I really wanted to immerse myself in my fellow poor Americans hardships, but the way Auster created the flow of the story and each character with deceiving clarity made it seem not quite like a novel but more of a bit of a creative thesis on the current events of America. He has a way with words making small statements with them that actually speak volumes, although more masculine nuances emanated, which tend to annoy this female reader when they are overly present.

I was intrigued by the details of the interests of the characters, such as publishing, artistic endeavors and baseball statistics. But halfway through the book the monotonous stream of consciousness style of writing began to gnaw on my nerves, and some of the overly-cerebral descriptions of things began to grate on my nerves as well, which were at first pleasantly entertaining miscellaneous details. One character was studying the film The Best Years of Our Lives, which then became pages and pages of commentary within the novel and.. well, ... snore... (but I think that perhaps there might be a jump in online searches for that very film due to its many mentions in Auster's novel). There were sexual themes throughout the young characters, which is expected, but I am a prude. I like romance and love themes to be included if there is an abundant sex life. I must be asking for too much.

Another peeve was the fact that there were many conversations throughout the novel that were just too good to be punctuated with quotation marks was exasperating. Thumbing through again, and not a quotation mark to be found. And when I finally did reach the end of the story.. what a horrific spot to end the freaking story... boy, was I ticked off! What a waste of my time.

It strikes me that I'll have to read Franzen's Freedom, or perhaps Corrections, and see how they compare as they follow the same premise, but it won't be too soon. Basically, I felt this was one writer's round about psychological analysis of why America sucks today as we know it, and that's just not my cup of tea. I must not be one of those intelligent cerebral types, and this is a rare departure from my comfortable historical reads. Given his track record, there's no doubt that Paul Auster is a talented, intelligent writer, but the storytelling part and his job to enlighten and/or to entertain this particular reader failed. Frankly, I prefer other genres of books that bring me to another place and another time in order to escape my everyday reality of small horrors such as financial hardship and dysfunctional families. Given the fact that there are others out there who adored this book, I must humbly accept the fact I am a nerd. It is at this point that I am proud to say I love historical fiction so much that perhaps I should never stray from it again (unless it's a historical non-fiction work).