by Michael Waldrep
Sunset Park doesn’t really have anything to do with Sunset Park. This is a minor qualm, but one that poisoned the early parts of the novel—that is, the length of time it took for me to realize it didn’t matter, and to stop caring. Publishers Weekly leads its review of the novel with a promise that author Paul Auster revels in the “tarnished, conflicted soul of Brooklyn.” There is a description of “factories near the waterfront,” a Chinatown with “ducks hanging in the butchers window,” but the protagonist of the book, a West Village-born New Yorker returning after a long, self-imposed exile, doesn’t much care about the neighborhood: “He leaves without taking a single picture.”
The book seems, much in the same manner as many of its main characters, conflicted and unsure. People, whether they be those young residents of an abandoned house in Brooklyn or successful authors, publishers and actors in shining Manhattan luxury, imagine pursuits for themselves and murder them with doubt. New passions sprout, but are as often as not cut down, like the familiar and stable in the lives of these characters. Auster’s language simply lays down the grid upon which these characters travel; it is simple, direct, and unceasing. It forms imposing block paragraphs; if a reader is dead set on searching for meaning imprinted in the simple artistry of words, of poetry laid bare in a single sentence, they will be hard-pressed here.
Perhaps it’d be better to say this: if you’re looking for something, it isn’t here. Or it is, but you pass it by with as little care as a window shopper with empty pockets. It ignites the imagination and is, without pause, transcribed to memory and hidden from sight. Broken typewriters, Liu Xiaobo, underage love, guilt, lust, freedom: they rise up, become whole, and fade from sight. Whole characters, motivations, plot lines do just the same, but it could never be called frustrating. It is inspiring, like meeting someone wonderful you realize you’ll never see again. It is inspiring, because it reminds you of all the richness and strength in people and in the world that you’re surrounded by but you’ll never truly know.