Exploring the sacred relics of the mind
Paul Auster, with his characteristically masterful postmodern experimentation, once again proves himself equally adept at character development and emotional depth. His 16th novel, which follows a group of young squatters seeking refuge from the harsh demands on their generation, is both touching and timely—and showcases the unlikely adaptability of a much-pigeonholed writer.
While Auster’s characters have long orbited a Woody Allen-esque New York, where intellectual and financial successes seem completely congruous, the recession looms large in Sunset Park. The action centers on an abandoned house in the titular Brooklyn neighborhood, where four broke 20-somethings have taken up residence. The ringleader, Bing, eschews his bourgeois background to run a fledgling restoration business, which he calls The Hospital of Broken Things. Ellen is a reluctant real estate agent trying to find her legs as an artist, and Alice a nurturing graduate student of pop culture. They are soon joined by Miles Heller, a tortured Brown dropout who has fled his prominent New York family to bide his time in Florida, poignantly cleaning out a bevy of foreclosed homes and falling into an inappropriate love affair—perhaps the least believable part of the story. Yet Miles’ homecoming, and the effect that it has on the Sunset Park house as well as his broken family, is riveting and perfectly rendered.
Thematically, the novel is preoccupied with relics, the physical reminders of emotion—for Miles, the abandoned possessions of hundreds of evicted tenants; for Bing, the beaten-up antiques he has pledged to save; for Ellen, the dangerously erotic images she is finally able to cultivate from the ephemera of her mind and put onto paper; and for Alice, an obsession with a World War II film which she believes captures the simultaneous hope and despair of a generation. And for Miles’ father Morris, a prominent publisher, it is books—perhaps, as Auster so deftly illustrates here, the most sacred relics of all.