[ bookreviews ]
I'm not one for contemporary fiction. I read less than a novel a year and I'm usually disappointed, so my taste tends toward Garcia Marquez, Pamuk, Paley or older writers like Bellow, Carver, Hemingway and so on. I prefer philosophy, poetry, drama, straight science. I don't suspend disbelief when dipping into contemporary fiction because so much of it is awful and simply a waste of time. I don't care to recall when this decline in imagination began; it probably has to do with the congealing of English language fiction into a global entertainment corporate commodity during the Reagan era.
That's all changed now, and admittedly one can find pretty good fiction from all around the planet for virtually nothing these days. In any event, I admit to this sanguine perspective so you can better judge the following recommendation: I've just finished a really good novel called Sunset Park by Paul Auster.
How do I know Sunset Park is a good novel? Because I wept at least three times during the read which, I assure you, required something more than suspension of disbelief on my part. While engaged in this contemporary narrative of damaged people brought to the point of reinvention by the corruption of capitalism, I found myself at the funeral of a brilliant young suicide. A 23-year-old woman inexplicably hangs herself in a ladies room in Venice. I confront her father, days later, at her funeral in New York and I crumble into tears, unable to ignore his unbearable suffering.
Perhaps it was the wine, or the late hour, but as an atheist fully aware of the existential landmines which await us all, I muttered a silent prayer to the neon Vegas Dice strand in my DNA - the nucleotide we sometimes call "luck," "chance," "fate" or "karma" - thankful yet again that my two brilliant daughters and young architect son are fit and well and committed, each navigating with a strong internal compass toward completely personal and productive futures.
I was overcome by the father, a writer who delivers his daughter's eulogy in Sunset Park, but I won't ruin your read by going into this entangled yet crystalline plot further, except to say that the narrative doesn't unfold, it circumambulates in and out of each characters existential confrontations, revealing more with each unfolding narrative. The story connects and disconnects characters as they move hesitantly, denyingly, toward the deeper mythos of tragedy, farce, despair and weary triumph, in a culture so totally disengaged from their inconsequential lives that the reader has no choice but to fill the emotional gaps with understanding, empathy, solidarity, and finally celebration that somehow their lives (and our own) move forward, no matter the time wasted with ambitious banalities, awful art and failed society. Auster, at the top of his game, also provides an arsenal of literary 'tricks' enough to engage and amuse the informed reader.
Art and literature bind Auster's characters into a subset of Americana adrift and in search of moorings. As each character (mother, father, son, underage lover, coconspirator, childhood paramour) moves through dilemmas and confrontations - questions of self worth, gender, sexuality, ambition, procreation, death, global politics, and so on - to arrive at moments of clarity, compassion, self awareness and self liberation, armed for the good fight in the face of whatever the future might deliver next.
Auster loosely integrates these individual narratives into a fluid mythic context: Hollywood, in the form of William Wyler's sentimental 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives, which follows three World War II veterans returning home to discover that they and their families (not to mention their nation 60 years later) have been irreparably changed - Jung's myth of the returning hero gone awry. Auster's contemporary characters engage the film and live out post-war angst, and post-Cold War decline, into a state of lingering ennui at the end of empire today.
There's a deeper mythology at work in Sunset Park, the exhausted spiritual state of existential reality as Samuel Beckett explored it, before the rest of us were even "born into it". Auster's lead character's estranged mother, for example, is a successful aging film actress returned to the city to appear in the role of her career as Winnie in a new production of Beckett's stark and challenging Happy Days. Sunset Park's mythic context sifts through the last half century from the failed returning hero, into Beckett's post-apocalyptic landscape of endless contemplation and anxiety, armed with nothing but logic, cunning and language. Another contextual level is the everyday mythology of baseball heroes, discussed endlessly between generations, as well as food and popular celebrity which provide connective tissue to hold contemporary culture at least conversationally in place.
Sunset Park is an interesting and moving read. Sure to strengthen the resolve of the survivors of the storm, circa 2011. No matter where you have landed, post crash of '08, Sunset Park is where you will eventually find yourself.