I picked this book up by random at the featured new book shelf of the library. The blurb key word : “families who have abandoned their houses due to debt or foreclosure during the banking crisis.” caught my eyes. I devour the book within two days.
Sunset Park is about 28-year-old Miles Heller who is haunted by guilt for having inadvertently caused the death of his step-brother, Bobby. An incident that caused him to flee New York seven years previously. For seven years he stayed away and lost contact with his father Morris and step-mom Willa, her mother Mary-Lee Swann who is an actress and left him when he is an infant. Now he lives in the sprawling flatlands of Florida, photographing the last traces of families who have abandoned their houses due to debt or foreclosure during the banking crisis, which his colleagues looted valuables and claimed them their own. Miles met Pilar Sanchez, an under-18 who is intelligent and mature for her age and her three older sisters. Soon the romance became too complicated, forces Miles to go on a run again as he contemplates to return to Brooklyn to confront his past.
The story starts off with Miles’ life in Florida which is engrossing and then it sort of steered away from Miles and intermittent chapters were voices of the other tenants at the Sunset Park. Bing Nathan, Miles’ high school friend, Alice Bergstrom, a Phd student working part-time at PEN and Ellen Brice a pallid, solemn painter who had a dark past and felt she was unloved. It was bulbous Bing who kept Miles parents informed of his whereabouts all these years and the mastermind behind the plan of persuading Miles, Alice and Ellen to squat at a vacant property at Sunset Park. What the worse that could happen? Free of paying rental, utilities, the worse that can happen would be an eviction. Looking at it this way, I thought it was an enticing proposition and if only I could get away from paying rent! 😉
I like these descriptions of Mile’s life in suspension:
He is 28-years-old, and to the best of his knowledge he has no ambitions. No burning ambitions, in any case, no clear idea of what building a plausible future might entail for him. He knows that he will not stay inFloridamuch longer, that the moment is coming when he will feel the need to move on again, but until that need ripens into a necessity to act, he is content to remain in the present and not look ahead. To have no plans, which is to say, to have no longings or hopes, to be satisfied with your lot, to accept what the world doles out to you from one sunrise to the next – in order to live like that you must want very little, as little as humanly possible.
Bit by bit, he has pared down his desire to what is now approaching a bare minimum. He has cut out smoking and drinking, he no longer eats in restaurants, he does not own a television, a radio, or a computer. He would like to trade in his car for a bicycle, but he can’t get rid of the car, since the distances he must travel for work are too great. The same applies to cell phone he carried around in his pocket, which he would dearly love to toss in the garbage, but he needs it for work as well and therefore can’t do without it. The digital camera was an indulgence, perhaps, but given the drear and slog of the endless trash-out rut, he feels it is saving his life. His rent is low, since he lives in a small apartment in a poor neighbourhood, and beyond spending money on bedrock necessities, the only luxury he allows himself is buying books, paperback books, mostly novels, American novels, British novels, foreign novels in translation, but in the end books are not luxuries so much as necessities, and reading is an addiction he has no wish to be cured of. – page 6 and 7
The book is intense and engrossing. This is my first Paul Auster book and I felt I was in the hands of a true master. He is an acute observer of contemporary social ailments. Patchwork families and allegiance questioned between a child and his step parents, impact of debt and bank crisis on everyday lives, making choices between ambitions and Pilar’s attachment to her family, love and loss, infidelity, the decline of the small publishers, PEN’s work on freedom of writers’ voice etc. etc.. quite a lot of themes covered in a small book.
Since the war in Vietnam, he would argue that the concept known as America has played itself out, that the country is no longer a workable proposition, but if anything continues to unite the fractured masses of this defunct nation, if American opinion is still unanimous about any one idea, it is a belief in the notion of progress. He contends that they are wrong, that the technological developments of the past decades have in fact only diminished the possibilities of life. In a throwaway culture spawned by the greed of profit-driven corporations, the landscape has grown ever more shabby, ever more alienating, ever more empty of meaning and consolidating purpose. – page 72
The book is subtle but ambitious. It has a voice which is distinctively contemporary American. One thing I find discord in this book is the “noise” of other characters in the book and how everyone secretly wanted Miles (give me a break!). I also find it discord to hear a third narrative in most chapters, and then one chapter writes in an overuse of generic “you” in it. I know the book is meant to expose how emotionally and “genetically” flawed all the characters are; but at times it is a bit too much of soppy individual stories for me, which of no big consequences to the main plot. Miles is a character that one can’t help but like, albeit the awful thing he did.
We do not grow stronger as the years advance. The accumulation of sufferings and sorrows weakens out capacity to endure more sufferings and sorrows, and since sufferings and sorrows are inevitable, even a small setback late in life can resound with the same force as a major tragedy when we are young. The straw that broke the camel’s back. – page 266
I always love a story of the proverbial prodigal son, and if you have ever estranged from any member in your family one can always relate to the shame, guilt and tension of running the same blood but not always able to put up with meeting one another or see eye-to-eye with a close family member. These emotions are brought home beautifully by Auster in this book.
A good weekend afternoon read that could be finished within one or two sittings. I will endeavour to read Auster’s other books.
Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York (Photo credit)
Paperback. Publisher: Faber and Faber 2011. Length: 309 pages. Setting: Florida and New York. Source: Reading Library. Finished reading on: 9th August 2011.
Leeswammes: I really enjoyed the beginning of the book, but as the story of Miles went on, I started to get bored.
Nathan hobby: It was enjoyable enough to read, especially when each chapter is taken on its own. Auster gets a chance to write at length about baseball, luck, loneliness and reconciliation. It just all adds up to less than it should.
About the writer: Paul Benjamin Auster (born February 3, 1947) is an American author known for works blending absurdism, existentialism, crime fiction and the search for identity and personal meaning in works such as The New York Trilogy (1987), Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), The Book of Illusions (2002) and The Brooklyn Follies (2005).
Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey, to Jewish middle class parents of Polish descent Samuel and Queenie Auster. He grew up in South Orange, New Jersey and graduated from Columbia High School in adjoining Maplewood. After graduating from Columbia University in 1970, he moved to Paris, France where he earned a living translating French literature. Since returning to the U.S. in 1974, he has published poems, essays, novels of his own as well as translations of French writers such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Joseph Joubert. He and his second wife, writer Siri Hustvedt, were married in 1981, and they live in Brooklyn. Together they have one daughter, Sophie Auster. Previously, Auster was married to the acclaimed writer Lydia Davis. They had one son together, Daniel Auster. He is also the Vice-President of PEN American Center. Paul Auster has very scary eyes, I can’t find any pictures which are less scary, so this will do… 😉