About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

#79: Sunset Park

Sunset Park, by Paul Auster (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010)

(Would actually have been #77, but I left it home on my recent trip to LI and took Bonobo Handshake and The Arrivals instead.)

Park follows the hopes and fears of a cast of unforgettable characters brought together by the mysterious Miles Heller during the dark months of the 2008 economic collapse.
  • An enigmatic young man employed as a trash-out worker in southern Florida obsessively photographing thousands of abandoned objects left behind by the evicted families.
  • A group of young people squatting in a house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
  • The Hospital for Broken Things, which specializes in repairing the artifacts of a vanished world.
  • William Wyler's 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives.
  • A celebrated actress preparing to return to Broadway.
  • An independent publisher desperately trying to save his business and his marriage.

These are just some of the elements Auster magically weaves together in this immensely moving novel about contemporary America and its ghosts. Sunset Park confirms Paul Auster as one of our greatest living writers."

Opening Line:
"For almost a year now, he has been taking photographs of abandoned things."

My Take:

Made an interesting discovery with this one. After noting last week that Sunset Park was "interesting from a literary point of view, but [hadn't] grabbed me from either a plot or character perspective," and getting to that point halfway into the book where it's neither so great you're tearing through the pages nor so bad you give up altogether, I tried something different: I read it out loud. Not all of it, mind you; just a chapter here and there when I was home by myself or while MrHazel and Twig were otherwise engaged (i.e., watching Doctor Who on Netflix).

Amazing the difference this made. As I initially suspected, Sunset Park is literary fiction, rather than something you read primarily for the plot. (Yeah, I know they're not mutually exclusive, but humor me for a minute.) Not much of consequence happens here; essentially, four twenty-somethings squat in an abandoned Brooklyn townhouse for a few months until they finally get evicted. The characters are realistic and multifaceted, but all incredibly self-absorbed and not particularly likeable: Miles, the college dropout who abandoned his father and stepmother seven years ago, and has returned to New York from Florida only to escape possible prosecution for his relationship with his high school girlfriend; Bing, the old school friend who runs the Hospital for Broken Things and secretly keeps Miles' father informed of his son's whereabouts; Alice, the perpetual grad student who finds her part-time job promoting writers' free speech far more compelling than her almost-but-not-quite-done dissertation; and Ellen, the artist whose erotic drawings provide perhaps her sole sexual outlet, given that her obsession with Miles seems doomed to remain unrequited.

But for all that there's not much of a plot here and the characters remind you of that annoying special snowflake co-worker or college dorm-mate we've all known now and again, Sunset Park has a lot to say. Much as I had the odd, life-imitates-art experience a few weeks ago of reading The Confession while the Troy Davis case was in the news, I couldn't help thinking that the Sunset Park squatters' lives of quiet desperation, seeking meaningful work and lives in a society that renders us anonymous and interchangeable, parallel the frustrations that, collectively, gave rise to the Occupy Wall Street protests and the earlier Arab Spring demonstrations. Alice has given up on adjuncting, which requires at least a full-time effort for a salary that works out to be something around minimum wage; Miles has worked here and there as a cook and trash-out worker before Bing gives him a make-work job out of kindness. All four principals are at once determined to make or be something of significance, and utterly in despair of ever succeeding. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say I loved this book, or that it's one of my favorites, but it definitely offered some interesting things to think about and a compelling but disturbing vision of contemporary American youth and culture.

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