Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Twenty-something Miles Heller is in a relationship with a much younger woman. In fact, the woman in question is underage. After a brief scuffle in Florida with her family over their relationship, Miles moves back to New York for a few months while he awaits his lover's eighteenth birthday, sharing a house with a few friends and acquaintances. Though this seems to be a normal arrangement, the four people sharing the house are actually illegal squatters who have taken over the run-down farmhouse in the far reaches of Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Miles is considering visiting the family from whom he's been estranged for seven years and is mulling over his complicity in the death of his step-brother, Bobby. Miles' father and mother are deeply delighted that he's decided to make contact after all these years, and unbeknownst to Miles, have been keeping tabs on his whereabouts through a friend. As the narrative thread winds its way along, the reader gets glimpses of the situation as seen through the eyes of Miles, his parents and the three other squatters. Both sparse and evocative, Auster relates a story of a very unusual yet somehow ordinary set of people trying to find peace and permanence in the harsh realities of today's society.
Lately I've been reading a lot about Paul Auster and his writing. Most of what I've heard has been encouraging, but I have to admit I was a bit intimidated. After reading Steph's review of The New York Trilogy, I knew that this was an author I wanted to tackle and quickly bought my own copy, which I promptly let linger quietly on my shelf. When the opportunity arose for me to read Sunset Park came, I was excited and thrilled and found myself inordinately consumed with questions about the book. Would I understand it, or would it all go over my head? Would it be too complex for me to really get a good handle on what Auster was trying to do with the story? What I found was that although Auster's writing can be deeply complex, I had no trouble understanding or relating to his story or the characters in it.
Sunset Park deals with a handful of very different characters sharing a lot of the same emotions and feelings. Though they are at different stages in life and in differing places, all are dealing with loneliness, apathy and identity issues. These themes were forefront in the novel and very fluid from character to character. Each of the main players spends time dealing with regret and missed opportunity, and share common feelings of dissatisfaction for their lives and in the relationships that they have. They are all beset by individual quandaries but are all facing the same issues from different perspectives. I thought it was interesting that Auster does such a wonderful job of making each of these characters so similar, yet there is no chance that you will mistake one for another, and equally no chance that their plights will become repetitive and overdone. There's an underlying pathos to all the tales here, and although there's no overt drama, there is some slightly stinging sadness that permeates the narrative and which made the characters and their stories very sympathetic to me.
The plot in this novel is not really fast flowing nor expansive, and it can be argued whether or not there's really a plot here at all. The book is more of a handful of character studies, and as such, spends a lot of time delving into the past and present situations of the people Auster chooses to write about. These character sketches are generous and one of the things I like about Auster's writing is that he's kind to his characters. This is not only true in the literal sense but also in the figurative sense, as each character is given time to explain themselves and their actions, and each facet of their personalities is fully detailed. Not one of the characters gets short shrift, and even those on the periphery seem to get a chance to validate themselves and tell their side of the story. There were a couple of characters who rather put me off, but even so, they were still very three-dimensional and interesting, and I felt something akin to closeness to all of them. I think this had to do with the strength of Auster's creation of them, and the fact that they were all so lifelike.
Auster's writing style was very quiet and spare. Things were not overly described or plodding; rather it seemed that he chose to relate things in a simple and straightforward manner. Certain themes and symbols were scattered throughout the novel and tied together nicely through differing segments, making this story a little more literary and portentous than others I've read recently. I especially liked the varying statements made on modern day America, and specifically, the economic downturn that so many are facing today. There was a boldness and an inevitability in the description of theses scenes that made them feel at once refreshing yet also strangely hopeless. A great deal of page space was given over to the internal thoughts of the characters and to the motivations behind their actions, which is something I enjoyed a lot. I like knowing why someone feels as they do and why they're doing the things they are doing, which is something Auster does just right. At its close, the story suddenly shifts and all that the reader knows becomes invalid and malleable. This is something I felt was very well done, and I enjoyed the fact that the end of the book wasn't tied up in a neat little bow and didn't feel contrived.
If you haven't read anything by Auster, I would definitely recommend this book. It's not nearly as intimidating as I thought it would be, and it has the added benefit of being remarkably agreeable in style and execution. Those readers who like character studies will eat this book up, and despite the fact that it's written with in a quiet and undemanding hand, I enjoyed it very much. I'm looking forward to reading The New York Trilogy and possibly other books by Auster. Recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Posted by Zibilee at 8:00 AM