I love the magnificent way in which details attach, return, and even wrap around each other in New York City novelist Paul Auster’s most recent novel, Sunset Park (New York NY: Henry Holt, 2010), a book set to coincide with the financial collapse of 2008. Here, we follow a series of characters, centred around Miles Heller, who ends up returning to New York City after nearly a decade away from his family. Miles had originally disappeared off the face of his earth as far as his father, a book publisher, and his mother, an actress, were concerned, and returns to New York to a room offered by Bing Nathan in their Sunset Park squat. From there, we are introduced to the two other residents of the house, as well as Miles’ parents, and his stepmother, each story wrapping easily and intricately around the other, in ways that even the characters will never fully realize. As any regular reader of his work already knows, Auster loves his coincidences, his series of accidents that take characters from simple moments to awkward, unexpected and even dangerous places, but his level of characterization in this ensemble work is quite breathtaking, adding layer upon layer in the simplest, and seemingly benign, detail, returning in such a way as to show its full strength. How does he do it? Framed by the financial collapse, the novel begins:
For almost a year now, he has been taking photographs of abandoned things. There are at least two jobs every day, sometimes as many as six or seven, and each time he and his cohorts enter another house, they are confronted by the things, the innumerable cast-off things left behind by the departed families. The absent people have all fled in haste, in shame, in confusion, and it is certain that wherever they are living now (if they have found a place to live and are not camped out in the streets) their new dwellings are smaller than the houses they have lost. Each house is a story of failure—of bankruptcy and default, of debt and foreclosure—and he has taken it upon himself to document the last, lingering traces of those scattered lives in order to prove that the vanished families were once here, that the ghosts of people he will never see and never know are still present in the discarded things strewn about their empty houses.