Impossible to avoid, the “Great Recession” that began in December of 2007 still permeates nearly every aspect of our current American lifestyle. For some, this simply means spending less at the supermarket. For others, it’s the loss of a house after months or years of unemployment. Paul Auster’s latest novel, Sunset Park (Henry Holt & Co.), is an odd and unsatisfying novel that uses the current recession to bring into question the purpose of individual lives.
Sunset Park follows multiple narrators, changing points of view from chapter to chapter, but it focuses primarily on Miles Heller, a young man haunted by a single memory. The novel takes place in 2008 and begins in Florida where Miles is a trash-out worker, helping to “preserve” foreclosed homes so that banks can put them back on the market. Not one to build suspense, Auster quickly spills Miles’ secrets: his step-brother’s mysterious death, his decision to drop out of Brown University despite his apparent brilliance, and his love for 17-year-old Pilar.
The storyline then moves to New York, where Pilar’s older sister threatens to report Miles to the police unless he steals Christmas presents for her. Miles thus moves to Brooklyn to join Bing, the only friend he has kept in contact with since he left New York. Bing is squatting in an abandoned house in the Sunset Park neighborhood and is ultimately reunited with his parents. The novel primarily explores the growth and discovery of each character as they make changes to their lives, figure out who they are, and realize what really matters to them in the face of a failing economy.
By representing a grand spectrum of people, from Miles’ famous actress mother to his depressed, artistically uncertain housemate, Auster shows more than just the financial effects of the 2008 economic collapse. The novel’s shifts in perspective expose his characters’ secrets and fears, revealing how each is merely searching for that one thing that will bring him or her happiness and make it all make sense.
Unfortunately, Auster brings any glimmer of hope crashing down in the final pages. Throughout the novel, he seems to be pressing his readers to reflect upon their own lives, yet ultimately concludes that any journey toward contentment is futile. Athough the novel comes full circle—or perhaps because of this fact—Auster’s ending leaves his reader with too many unanswered questions. Miles comes to the same conclusions he began with: there is no option but to live completely for the present moment, because he cannot dare hope for a future. Although this parting sentiment could be elegant and disturbingly beautiful in another tale, in Sunset Park it falls flat. Why did I just spend two days reading a book that goes nowhere? What happens to the other characters?
Sunset Park also feels oddly dated and somehow lacks a real connection to an audience reading on the brink of 2011. This could have been intentional, as a novel that purposely painted the economic and social climate of 2008 as a separate, alien world could have been very compelling. Yet Auster’s execution felt neither current nor distinctly historical. The novel is further dragged down by a bevy of unrelatable characters—Miles, for example, hates cell phones, doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, and is dating someone underage.
A handful of ill-used motifs serve to confuse rather than enlighten the reader. For instance, the recurring theme of baseball could have added a lot to the story, but surfaced at awkward moments and ultimately lacked any important tie-in; it almost seems as if Auster merely wanted his novel to feel more “American.” A second metaphor emerges through the graduate dissertation of one of Bing’s friends and fellow house-squatters, which happens to use the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives. Although the film does tie in to the greater novel with ideas of reunion and coping with past trauma, it still seems a little forced.
Sunset Park is a complex novel, and the impression it leaves will ultimately be different for every reader. Some may feel a strong connection to its themes or characters or find it very compelling; perhaps I just missed the point. But my recommendation? If you want to read a novel detailing the hardships of the recession or are interested in checking out award-winning, undeniably talented Paul Auster’s writing, start elsewhere.