There’s no character called Paul Auster in Paul Auster’s Sunset Park—not even a novelist with the initials P.A. or some anagrammatic surname. It’s your first clue that the notoriously po-mo novelist might have abandoned his usual narrative games for something more conventional, which hitherto he has always approached with an ironic distance. Describing a painting, Auster writes, “It comes across as timid evasion, an empty exercise in style, whereas all [the artist] has ever wanted is to draw and paint representations of her own feelings.” The question isn’t whether Auster is talking about himself here; he’s always talking about himself. It’s whether he’s serious: has Paul Auster really gone airport-fiction?
Sunset Park packs so much melodrama it’s downright 19th Century: accidental homicide, crippling guilt, deep-dark secrets, tearful phone calls, tearier reconciliations, life-changing coincidences, moonlit skinny dips, confused sexual orientations, illicit affairs with underage lovers, abortions, attempted suicides, and successful suicides. Chapters end with such histrionic anticipation—”will he dare to go to the theater and knock on his mother’s dressing room door? Will he dare to ring the bell of the apartment on Downing Street?”—all that’s missing is an announcer recommending to Tune in Next Week.
The book opens on Miles Heller, a West Village-bred publishing scion hiding from his past, and family, in Florida. There, he falls for a very mature high-school senior, Pilar. But when her older sister threatens to turn him in for statutory rape—¡que telenovelica!—he returns to New York and the troubles he’d left behind, moving into a Sunset Park squat with some friends, each of whom, not to mention his parents, have their own high-melodrama back stories. (The omnisciently narrated chapters rotate between protagonists.)
Moving through such emotional territory, Sunset Park eschews the meta-literary, but that’s not to say it isn’t self-conscious. Auster elucidates his own themes by discussing those of others: Gatsby and Mockingbird play important roles, as do the characters’ encyclopedic knowledge of baseball statistics and off-the-field anecdotes. But the most essential intertext proves William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, about soldiers and civilians readjusting after The War, to which Auster devotes page upon page. Sunset Park strives to become its 21st Century equivalent.
Gradually, the book loses its urgency; melodramatic incidents set into motion the characters’ lives, but the present time Auster spends with them is largely uneventful and transitional. The fireworks have long-since fizzled. Theirs are lives in stasis, souls in limbo. This is we, Ausuter suggests, on the cusp of this new era; the great recession is our great war, these are Our Best Years, this is our time of readjustment and rebuilding—as though from communities North and South, Latino and yuppie, from Brooklyn to Florida, American life is being reinvented as it hasn’t for decades. Auster describes the titular Brooklyn neighborhood as filled with the “mournful emptiness of poverty”. As Americans, he suggests, this is where we’re squatting, whether literally or figuratively.