Wood Ruins Auster

As I flipped through Sunset Park, the new Paul Auster novel that comes out in November, I kept wondering: “Is this a James Wood parody of a Paul Auster novel?” That’s how deeply Wood’s criticism of Auster has burrowed into my skull.

Auster has been acclaimed and beloved ever since he published The New York Trilogy in 1987. He’s practically a saint in Brooklyn, where the borough president, Marty Markowitz, declared every February 27th to be Paul Auster Day. If I hadn’t been exposed to Wood’s withering take on Auster’s “pleasing, slightly facile books,” I might have tried harder to convince myself that I should enjoy Sunset Park as a culturally important work of art. Instead I found it laughable.

All of the elements I remember from Wood are there:

— The insistence on narrating everything from the same distant, arch 3rd person POV, to the exclusion of action and dialogue.

— The obvious crush that Auster has on his own characters, who embody vague, interchangeable philosophies about art, rebellion, and solitude.

— The “comfortingly artificial” feel of his prose.

I was particularly interested in the book because it’s named after the part of Brooklyn I live in. Here is Auster’s introduction to the neighborhood.

Ellen, who worked in the rental division of her real estate company on Seventh Avenue, told him about Sunset Park. It was a rougher neighborhood, she said, but it wasn’t far from where she was living now, and rents were a half or a third of the rents in Park Slope. 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, biker bars, check-cashing places, Hispanic restaurants, the third-largest Chinatown in New York, and the four hundred and seventy-eight acres of Green-Wood Cemetery, where six hundred thousand bodies are buried, including those of Boss Tweed, Lola Montez, Currier and Ives, Henry Ward Beecher, F.A.O. Schwartz, Lorenzo Da Ponte, Horace Greeley, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Samuel F. B. Morse, Albert Anastasia, Joey Gallo, and Frank Morgan—the wizard in The Wizard of Oz. [pp. 79-80]

A lot of information—financial, historical, geographic, demographic—is packed into that passage. But is Auster so focused on the story’s surface that he can’t give us more than a census survey?

Maybe. I didn’t finish the novel. But I would have, if it were called “Sunset Park: A Paul Auster Parody” by James Wood.



  1. I too, was struck by the Woods review, and as a former Sunset Parker, was intrigued by the setting of Auster’s new novel. I’m not sure that encyclopedia entry of a description is going to sell me on the book however…

  2. Wow, you’re right, that passage about the neighborhood sounds like it comes straight off Wikipedia. That does not bode well.

    I just finished reading Auster’s most recent novel, “Invisible,” and it was pretty damn terrible. I think he misplaced his talent somewhere round about the year 2000. Too bad.

  3. Poor Pynchon, Rushdie, DeLillo, Zadie Smith, Updike (R.I.P.), Harold Bloom, Steiner, Gaddis (R.I.P.), and many others, viciously snubbed by the new preacher of the American letters, for whom there is an unique “good way” of making art. Those kind of people and places descriptions are always present in their books.
    For instance, read these words from the British playwright David Hare:
    «How can there be a wrong way to make good art? And, indeed, what point does criticism serve when it asserts only “This is not the sort of thing of which I approve”? When a literary critic such as James Wood twists himself into a pretzel explaining exactly why the novel he has under review is the wrong kind of good novel, he sounds like nothing so much as a Railtrack official railing against the wrong kind of snow.»
    Or these words from the greatest erudite alive, Harold Bloom, about the irrelevancy of the reactionary reviewer of The New Yorker magazine:
    [Excerpt of an interview] «Harold Bloom: Oh, don’t even mention him [James Wood]. He doesn’t exist. He just does not exist at all. […] My dear, phenomena are always being bubbled up. There are period pieces in criticism as there are period pieces in the novel and in poetry. The wind blows and they will go away.»
    Read a little bit more about writers punched by wood, read other critics’ opinions and points of view, dig a little deep on the world of literature, and then make up your opinion. Read, for example, Justin Jamail’s piece of work about Wood on Auster.
    «Unsurprisingly, Wood’s preferred fiction is realist, and bourgeois, and 99.9% dead, white, and male.» A.D. Jameson on the Wood’s dreadful pamphlet, How Fiction Works.

  4. That introduction strikes me as styled after a Balzac novel – with an influx of detail moving out from ‘Ellen’ to include the district as a whole. I find the use colloquialisms such as ‘hodgepodge’ rather striking as it suggests that Auster is trying to use free-indirect-style, which I suppose we can’t fail to associate with Wood. Despite this, it seems that Auster has somewhat failed, as an introduction it does little to captivate imagination – at least Balzac always did that. It feels decidedly 18th Century as an opening, albeit complete with modern jargon, and lacking the fetished sentence. What on earth is going on with the assyndeton?!

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