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.