The Echo of A Moment:
Paul Auster's Sunset Park
The novel is beautiful in a quiet, somewhat eerie, occasionally grand and startling way—not unlike the charm of Green-wood Cemetery, the sprawling historic landmark in Sunset Park. In the book, four of the main characters take over an abandoned house directly across the street from the cemetery, squatting there rent-free for several months. The gloom of death, and yet the vast beauty of the monuments, hills, and trees in the cemetery make a compelling backdrop for the story Auster wants to tell here—of seven people doing the best they can in the year 2008.
The main character is Miles Heller, a man in his mid-twenties who left his home and family in New York seven years ago because of a tragic incident, about which he harbors much guilt. He is living in Southern Florida when the book opens, and has fallen in love for the first time. Things are complicated, however, because the girl, Pilar, is only seventeen, and when Miles won’t listen to her sister’s blackmailing attempt, the sister makes it clear she intends to have Miles arrested. So Miles returns to New York to wait it out until Pilar turns eighteen. Of course, though he’s returned to New York to run away from one problem, his homecoming also marks an end to hiding from another. Though Miles doesn’t realize it, his parents have been aware of his whereabouts all these years through the one friend he’s kept in touch with, Bing Nathan. Bing has found an abandoned house in Sunset Park, and has been squatting there already for several months with three other women. When one of the women leaves, there is an open room, which he offers to Miles. Considering his situation, Miles feels he has little choice but to accept. Besides, perhaps the time has come for him to return to the family fold.
Paul Auster. His novel Sunset Park “moves from old to young, showcasing the way that thinking changes.”
The book is divided into sections alternating between the points of view of Miles, Bing, their roommates Ellen and Alice, and Miles’ divorced parents, Morris Heller and Mary-Lee Swann. Though the characters differ in age and gender, they have much in common—they are all white, well-educated, straight (at least seemingly so), exceptionally bright, if maladjusted New Yorkers. Rather than this being a problem, though, the lack of obvious diversity heightens the reader’s awareness of the inner diversity. The fact that the characters are so outwardly similar, and in fact encounter many of the same stimuli (people, places, films, books) but react to them differently, is a fascinating if not groundbreaking theme. I particularly like that Auster moves from old to young, showcasing the way that thinking changes based not only on character, experience, and current events, but also age. The film The Best Years of Our Lives is a common reminder of this idea. Alice, one of the squatters, studies the film as evidence for her dissertation. Other characters also watch, remember, and think about the movie on multiple occasions, and so it comes to serve as a touchstone to remind readers of certain themes: the role of wounds in making men, familial relationships, generational differences, and the way the past shapes the present. Similarly, baseball, and a particular cast of baseball characters, speaks to the roles luck and fate play in our destinies.
Some readers might complain that there is too much “telling” here, that the reader is not given enough of a chance to figure things out on her own. For example:
Every man is different from every other man, and when rough things happen, each man reacts in his own way.
Baseball is a universe as large as life itself, and therefore all things in life, whether good or bad, whether tragic or comic, fall within its domain.
Because that son was the single most important creature in the world for him, all the disappointments he’d endured with her had been worth it—no, more than worth it, absolutely necessary.
Could Auster have left these huge pointing fingers out of the book and still gotten his point across? Definitely. On the other hand, that is the way we think, some of us, the analytic among us, the writers, the readers, the scholars—the kind of people who make up this book. I would argue that such bold-face statements, coming as they do only now and then, amidst a muddle of other thoughts and feelings, are in fact entirely realistic, and therefore contribute to the book’s beauty rather than detract from it. Perhaps what is so moving about Sunset Park is that its people are not just likeable but, over the course of a short time spent inside their heads, become lovable. Without knowing their pasts, their troubles, their innermost thoughts—that is, if we were to judge them by their actions alone—this may not be the case. But when we see how delicate and tortured they are, how terribly hard they are trying to do the right thing, to be good people, to love one another, to understand everything, we can’t help but sympathize with them and hope for the best. The best result of such an experience might be that we start using the same criteria to judge ourselves. Maybe instead of measuring our own life only on the aspects of it visible to other people, we could give ourselves credit for what’s going on inside, too—how hard we are trying and what we are doing and thinking, slowly, little by little, to make our own and others’ lives better.
It’s not 2008 anymore, but the past becomes the present, and here we are now, still very much living with the catastrophes of that year. What Auster seems to be reminding us here is that we can’t expect to solve one problem before another begins. Before we get over the recession, depression, terrible mistake, whatever, yet another imperfect thing will find its way into our lives. But that is the path, and all we can do is walk it with love in our hearts. Reading books like this one has the potential to make us just a little bit better at doing that, if only for a moment—and you never know how long a moment might echo.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Willamette Week, and The Montreal Review, among other publications.