Thursday 23 February 2017

Review: Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Faber & Faber, €19.88, Hardback

Paul Auster's 16th novel is one of his least tricksy. Or, to put it another way, you're not invited to become engrossed in a character's life only to be told after 60 pages that this character is just a disposable fiction of the narrator, who, in turn, is revealed as merely a figment of the author's imagination.

Indeed, and unusually for this most self-consciously clever of writers, Sunset Park actually tells a straightforward story and features characters who are as recognisably themselves at the end of the novel as they were when introduced to the reader at the outset.

The book even has a specific timeframe -- the autumn and winter of 2008 -- and it addresses particular public issues, primarily the downturn in the American economy and its effect on the novel's main characters, all of whom are affected by the recession in one way or another.

The first, and principal, of these is 28-year-old Miles who, as the novel opens, has found work photographing the interiors of abandoned houses that have been repossessed by banks.

He's also engaged in an illicit relationship with underage Pilar and, when her sister tries to blackmail him, he flees to New York, where he ends up squatting in a deserted Brooklyn house with an old schoolfriend and two young women.

Auster allows each of these their own chapter and perspective: soured idealist Bing, who runs a shop called The Hospital of Broken Things and who "dreams of forging a new reality from the ruins of a failed world"; good-hearted graduate student Alice, who's writing a doctoral thesis on William Wyler's 1947 movie, The Best Years of Our Lives; and timid estate agent Ellen, who spends her artistic spare time drawing raunchy pictures.

And then there are the parents whom Miles hasn't seen or spoken to for almost a decade -- father Morris, who runs a literary publishing house, and mother Mary-Lee, a famous actress who's in town to play Winnie in a Broadway production of Beckett's Happy Days.

In other words, there's no underclass here. These are all relatively privileged people, and all artistically minded, too, and though they worry about the economic depression, there's no sense of anything being really at stake for them -- a feeling that's accentuated both by Auster's detached observance of them and by his elegantly cool prose.

Indeed, his stance is decidedly bookish throughout -- the younger characters, in particular, lack the immediacy and individuality of truly felt people -- while his choice of Happy Days and The Best Years of Our Lives as ironic signifiers is obvious and laboured.

And the abrupt ending, which simply abandons the characters in mid-action, is highly unsatisfactory. In a novel that has been so old-fashioned in its scrupulous attention to story-telling, is the reader not entitled to some kind of resolution?

Irish Independent

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