Anybody who knows me knows that I’m a Paul Auster apologist. He’s one of my favorite writers, and I’ve spent a lot of time defending him to friends who don’t share my enthusiasm. I have been a fan of his for years, but my interest blossomed into some kind of obsession roughly two years ago, upon the looming publication of Invisible, when I decided I wanted to interview him. When I asked Auster for an interview at one of his readings, he flatly and unsurprisingly said no. In response, I launched a year-long campaign of following him through the city, attending readings, events and parties I thought he might show up to. In the end, I succeeded—I managed to convince his publicist to grant me access—and it was, at the time, the highlight of my literary life. During the interview Auster mentioned the book he had just finished writing, describing it as a novel about a group of twenty-somethings living in an abandoned house in Brooklyn, to be called Sunset Park.
A brief aside: Around the time when I received the Sunset Park galley, I was rounding out a two-month obsession with the Gilmore Girls. I always thought the Gilmore Girls was annoying when it was on TV: The two characters around which the show revolves—quick-witted single mother Lorelai Gilmore and her overly-intellectual daughter Rory—seemed unbearable to watch. But one frozen Sunday I sat down and watched three episodes of the Gilmore Girls in a row. For the next eight weeks I found myself spending an embarrassing amount of time with Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, and becoming completely invested in their fictional lives. Amy Sherman-Paladino, who modeled the main character after herself, wrote and directed the show for six years, flawlessly crafting emotionally complicated and dynamic characters that were not only pleasurable to watch, but easy to relate to. That is, until she quit the show after learning of the producers’ decision to tack on a seventh season after Paladino had planned to terminate it. A new writer was brought in to replace Paladino for the last 18 episodes. It was an undisputed disaster.
As I watched the Gilmore Girls egregious seventh season—uneven characters, contrived dialogue, unrealistic plot twists that seemed to go against the very ethic of the show—I was struck: My disappointment was palpable, and matched only by my disappointment in Sunset Park. Like Amy Sherman-Paladino, it was as if the Paul Auster I know and love had left the building and was inexplicably replaced by someone going through the motions. It looks like Auster and sounds like Auster—it looks like Lorelai and (sort of) talks like her—but it isn’t, not really.
Sunset Park, like so many other Auster novels, plays with the ideas of chance, destiny, luck and memory. It is predominantly a story of wreckage and ruin—broken houses, families, economies, relationships, hope, belief, humanity. Miles Heller, a tortured young man haunted by the death of his brother and racked with guilt at the possibility of having caused it, is the character around which the novel revolves. After dropping out of a prestigious school on the East Coast he moves to Florida and takes a job “trashing out,” going through houses that have been abandoned upon the threat of foreclosure and ridding them of all remnants of their former residents. He is, in effect, a collector of garbage, but also a collector of memories, stories, refuse—all that is, or was, attached to the objects he disposes of.
In reality, Miles is the broken thing the others in the story painstakingly try to repair, or at least understand. After his brother’s accident, Miles went into hiding, isolating himself from his friends and family, including his publishing tycoon father Morris Heller who is by far the most well-rounded and sympathetic in a cast of damaged, misguided and self-involved characters. After meeting and falling in love with his muse—a brilliant and bookish seventeen-year-old girl named Pilar, though as a reader I detected no signs of the intellectual depth and maturity the author so often refers to—Miles is forced to relocate due to forces beyond his control. And he does, to a derelict house in Sunset Park with three other lost souls: Bing Nathan, a gentle giant and the leader of the pack who runs the Hospital for Broken Things, a repair shop for obsolete items of a bygone era; Ellen Brice, a young woman with self-esteem issues, her own guilt surrounding a tryst with a minor and a mind full of perversions; and Alice Bergstrom, the hyper-intellectual graduate student with a part-time gig at PEN America. Systematically, Miles’ new roommates all fall in love with him in various capacities, though the reader is given almost no insight into what makes Miles tick. Auster explicitly shows and tells us that Miles is an introvert, unwilling to expose himself to those around him—even to his beloved Pilar—but he deprives the readers of too much. His pain is familiar to those who have read Auster’s previous novels, and is centered around a certain denial, but unlike Adam Walker, the protagonist of Auster’s last novel Invisible, there are far too few redeeming qualities about Miles and, as a result, I found him undeserving of the affection, admiration and devotion of his peers.
The structure of the novel is so classically Auster—disjointed, slightly post-modern but incredibly methodical. It is broken up into sections about each of the five central characters, and narrated in the third person, creating an even greater distance between the reader and the subjects. Interspersed throughout the story are anecdotes about baseball players who have either been the victim of, or the beneficiary of, fate including Jack “Lucky” Lohrke, who cheated death time and time again, and Herb Score, whose career was cut short by a baseball to the face. Miles loves these characters, these casualties and heroes of destiny, and while he tells their stories freely, he tells us nothing of himself.
What Auster has created, in his preoccupation with broken things, are a set of broken—or better yet, incomplete—characters. What we know of them is so flimsy, and so heavily based around their fixations on Miles, that the development of each is shallow.
There are moments of sincerity—the ritual of Morris and his son eating at a local diner when Miles was a boy—but other than that, Sunset Park was wholly disappointing. Like the Gilmore Girls. The difference is, the last episode of the seventh season of the Gilmore Girls was sort of alright—Rory got the job she deserved, Lorelai ended up with the right guy and I was able to, if not forget the contrivance that was the previous seventeen episodes, at least appreciate the last one for doing right by loyal fans and followers. By contrast, Auster’s packs all of the action missing throughout the rest of Sunset Park into the last ten pages of the novel, which ends in a cacophonous, disastrous dash through a cemetery.
So, if you’re a planning on reading Sunset Park, you should probably just watch the Gilmore Girls instead.