Thursday, January 20, 2011

Paul Auster writes a diagnosis of these depressing times.

I liked the sound of this novel, which centers on a group of lost souls who are squatting in an abandoned house in Brooklyn. It is wrenching but powerful.

Sunset Park

Sunset Park (320 pages, Henry Holt, $25) tells the story of a neglected corner of Brooklyn, known by this name, where a group of aging misfits has established a beachhead in the modern world.

They're led by the ardent politico Bing, who feels that every action he chooses must be aimed against the contemporary world of multi-national corporations and its contempt for the common man. His actions are all local; hence the squatting—a small house with all its utilities seems simply to have been abandoned—and his work repairing bits of machinery—like typewriters and toasters—from an earlier age. He is a big, burly and almost lovable guy who is trapped in his own physicality and hasn’t really known love before this story begins.

Miles is also a misfit. He dropped out of college out of a brooding guilt that he was responsible for his step-brother’s death. In a sense he was—he shoved the boy into oncoming traffic—but the actual situation, when rehearsed, reads as an accident and nothing more. Miles escaped from college and from family, and he has bopped around the country doing odd jobs. When we first meet him he is in Florida, and he has fallen for a girl just shy of eighteen. When the girl’s sister starts to threaten him, he moves north and takes up with the Sunset Park crowd. He also takes the occasion to get back in touch with his parents, with mixed results.

The two other residents—Alice and Ellen—are interestingly drawn portraits of women in need. Ellen is a real estate broker who is so deeply lonely that she can hardly function. Alice, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia, is finding that the work she does in activist organizations is far more meaningful to her then her dissertation work, but she soldiers on nonetheless. Her own boyfriend seems to be slipping away, and they will break up before the novel reaches its conclusion.

All the people living in the Sunset Park house are putting off the inevitable--their idyll must end--but they are already like the walking wounded. Alice is writing her dissertation on the film, The Best Years of Our Lives, and the bittersweet mood of that work—the desperation facing those coming back from the war—seems to have infected these characters too. Their lives seem to be on hold, and they cannot figure out any way to move beyond that.

When movement comes in the form of outside forces—their lair is uncovered—the results are hardly salutary. They may finally have to face their inmost demons, but before they do they have to confront the legal quagmires in which they are stuck. The ending can only be considered happy in that they are less self-deluded. But that’s little consolation after all.

Auster has written a powerful novel about powerlessness and misdirection. I’m interested to look at some of these many other novels he has written.

Paul Auster

Sunset Park
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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