Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 126 in 2011.
By Paul Auster
Review by Kevin Riordan
Sunset Park, Paul Auster's 16th novel, is another of his patented, vacuum-packed enigmas, where, in contrast to most novels, the author strenuously contrives to prevent anything from happening to or between his characters. Organized into chapters that focus on one person at a time, we are steeped in the brooding of some wounded, haunted creatures, many of whom are trying to stay lost, most notably 28 year old Miles Heller, wasting his guilt ridden life and stubbornly estranged from both his parents and his step-mother. He falls in love with a girl who he sees reading the same book, a sure sign that you are in Auster country, where books are everything. The age difference is significantly cringe-inducing; in fact, every single person has a secret that is off-putting, if not always humanizing. Miles' father is a courageous, struggling publisher and joins the ever-growing list of Auster characters who work in words: a novelist, a book critic, magazine publisher, etc. It is lit-lit, stories set in a world of stories and their tellers. Everyone is feeling the strain of the economic crisis, which has induced a group of endearing souls to squat in a dilapidated house in Brooklyn, the geographic heart of the tale. Miles moves in to complete the quartet of questing, brainy young misfits. The approach is disjointed but a rhythm is achieved that is flawless.
Goethe maintained that ideas, or actually The Idea, is as real as a rock. I'm paraphrasing. Auster creates ideas that resemble people, more or less, and his descriptions are specific audits of their content. In this airless realm, randomness rules and the pursuit of happiness is strictly a matter of chance. Where someone like Jonathan Lethem will heavily season a book with cultural referents that make you want to put his book down and listen to that record or thumb through that comic, Auster confines his forays into our cultural heritage to a careful optimistic sounding few, the film The Best Years of Our Lives, improbably affecting almost everyone, major league ball players with true but unlikely names and fates, and Beckett's Happy Days. Miles' beautiful aging starlet mother is appearing as the profoundly frivolous Winnie in this play, buried to various depths throughout the play. Auster recently edited Samuel Beckett: The Grove Centenary Edition and apparently found someone he could relate to. Along with this novel, these are just the most recent of his many impressive feats; few figures loom larger in the world of literary cool. Many contemporary writers probably wish he would just bottle the stuff, whatever it is he's got. His manipulation of the reader is masterful, and when old Morris Heller tells himself "Nothing like a brief chat with Death to put things in perspective…" who can disagree?
Some critics would argue that he is treading water, has failed to live up to the standard set by his early New York trilogy, which suggested comic books even before Dave Mazzuchelli drew City of Glass as a graphic novel. With this straightforward, moving book, I think he is steadily increasing his grasp and evocation of what it means to be human. He has delivered a distant and stilted take on our times, but maybe you can see further from up on stilts.