The Known World

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Reviewing Sunset Park, I am behaving like a Paul Auster character, imagining a dialogue with a famous author, wondering about the ways fiction and reality overlap…”

Full disclosure: I live in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and have lived in the neighborhood for five years. I know the neighborhood’s streets. I have ordered carryout from its taquerias and dined in its dim sum emporiums, pointing wordlessly at shrimp rolls, buns, and dumplings. I have walked by innumerable sad-sack gatherings outside the now-shuttered OTB on Fifth Avenue. I am a part of the neighborhood and not a part of it, a resident and an observer—maybe even a student of the place. Perhaps this means that I should stop myself from reviewing Sunset Park, the latest novel by Paul Auster.

And yet here I am, sitting in my apartment, beginning a review of this renowned novelist’s attempt to tell a story set partly in my neighborhood (or a fictional place named after my neighborhood). In other words, I am behaving like a Paul Auster character, imagining a dialogue with a famous literary recluse who lives not far down the road, wondering about the ways fiction and reality overlap.

Before actually reading Sunset Park, I felt irritated that another writer—a great (or sometimes great) writer—had decamped from his comfy digs in affluent Park Slope and traveled to my downscale neighborhood to colonize the place with his characters and imagined scenarios. All sorts of questions bubbled up in my critical echo chamber before I read the first page: Does Auster really know anything about my neighborhood? Does he have any responsibility as a novelist to capture Sunset Park as I know it? And more complicated:  Is my own “knowledge” of the place credible, or merely a fiction of my own design?

I quickly forgot these questions, because the first 68 pages of Sunset Park are masterful. The novel’s opening features a typical Auster character—a bookish, introspective young man from New York City—who has transported himself outside the realm of familiarity, comfort, and home. The character, Miles Heller, is living in southern Florida, cleaning out abandoned houses during the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Miles is literate and smart, a thinker, yet he dropped out of college and has no professional or artistic ambitions. He hasn’t seen or spoken to his parents for several years; instead, he has traveled around the country working odd jobs, keeping in touch with only a single person from his past.

In Florida, Miles has fallen in love with a precocious Cuban American high school student (she is not quite 18) named Pilar. Pilar accepts Miles’s tenuous relationship to his past. She makes love to him tirelessly but has rules about what Miles is allowed to do with her “mommy hole.” The age difference between the two is a serious problem—and both are aware of this—but they want to be together.

At the end of this lovely, troubling first section of the book, Miles heads back to New York for the first time in years. Auster reveals the character’s thoughts as Miles travels back into territory he has avoided for so long:

Just north of Washington, as the bus enters the final leg of the trip, snow begins to fall. They are moving into winter now, he realizes, the cold days and long nights of his boyhood winters, and suddenly the past has turned into the future. He closes his eyes, thinking about Pilar’s face, running his hands over her absent body, and then, in the darkness behind his lids, he sees himself as a black speck in a world made of snow.

This is a deft maneuver on Auster’s part—a compact paragraph that ties together all that’s come before while simultaneously pushing us toward a series of confrontations that will change the main character’s life. What will become of Pilar? Will Miles see his parents again? What is the relationship between past and future Auster is trying to work out here? And what about the tension between what the book calls “Anglo” and “Latino” cultures—what does the novel have in store on that front?

This is when the novel touches down in Sunset Park. Miles temporarily moves into a house in the neighborhood where a handful of underemployed, artsy people have set up residence. They are squatters, paying no rent; the house has been abandoned, echoing the theme of abandoned homes that recurs throughout the story. The leader of this rent-free gang is Bing Nathan, the only childhood friend Miles has kept in touch with during his years of exile. Now the perspective of the novel begins to shift from one member of this ragtag band to the next; unfortunately, not all of these perspectives are as compelling as Miles Heller’s.

What really irked me, though, was Auster’s gloss on Sunset Park. Here is how the venerable Brooklyn author introduces (or dismisses) the neighborhood:

That Sunday, the two of them went out to explore the territory between Fifteenth and Sixty-fifth streets in western Brooklyn, an extensive hodgepodge of an area that runs from Upper New York Bay to Ninth Avenue, home to more than a hundred thousand people, including Mexicans, Dominicans, Poles, Chinese, Jordanians, Vietnamese, American whites, American blacks, and a settlement of Christians from Gujarat, India. Warehouses, factories, abandoned waterfront facilities, a view of the Statue of Liberty, the shut-down Army Terminal where ten thousand people once worked, a basilica named Our Lady of Perpetual Help…

This dry listing of neighborhood facts (which continues for another half-page) fails to bring the setting to life. And even if Auster is reinventing the place for his own fictional ends, it should come to life for a reader—but this passage sounds like a clumsy paragraph from a real-estate broker’s website. Later, as Miles walks through Sunset Park, Auster writes, “There is something dead about the place… the mournful emptiness of poverty and immigrant struggle, an area without banks or bookstores, only check-cashing operations and a decrepit public library,” and while this condemnation is from a character’s point of view, it still feels reductive, controlled by the author’s judgment. In other words, it sounds like Auster, not Miles. In Florida, Miles seemed sensitive to and curious about tales of “immigrant struggle”—he was in love with Pilar, learning about her Cuban American family, helping her fill out college applications. But now, in Auster’s Brooklyn, immigrants are faceless, the neighborhood is bleak, and Miles is suddenly blind to the lives and hopes of the people around him.

There is a lot to like about Sunset Park. The novel is peopled with book lovers—publishers, writers, autodidacts who read voraciously, people who fight for the rights of international authors at the PEN American Center. Auster has created a world where love of literature is a religion, where the pursuit of bookishness is holy. It is one of his talents to make us believe in and care about this world of books and bookishness, to see its beauty and fragility. In times like ours, it’s hard to knock Auster’s project. But the opening of Sunset Park promises a new Austerian ambition: an interest in juxtaposing the world of New York literati with a larger, more complicated America. The cloistered story that Sunset Park ultimately becomes is charming and suggestive, filled with lyricism. But as satisfying as the novel can be, it turns away from the world Auster is uncertain about, settling instead for the New York neighborhoods—real, imagined, literal, figurative—that he has shown us many times before.

Brian Schwartz teaches writing at New York University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in print publications on both coasts, and online at Ascent and Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. More from this author →