I can’t remember what it was that made me first pick up The New York Trilogy, but something about the austere, cold cleverness of the book appealed to me. I became a fan pretty much overnight, and have read just about everything he has done since then.
Which is a lonely furrow for anyone to plough. Very few authors are consistent, but there can’t be many who have veered between the brilliant and the awful as much as Auster has done. There have been times when the fact that every other book is dreadful became such a regular feature of his work that I contemplated deliberately reading each second book.
Thankfully he hasn’t kept up that on-again, off-again mode, but he has still turned out more stinkers than any author of his talent really has a right to do. And I have noticed a developing pattern in what does work.
It was the crisp, postmodern intricacy of The New York Trilogy that first drew me to his work, and for a long time that was what I kept looking for in subsequent novels. For a while, with books like In The Country of Last Things and Moon Palace, he didn’t let me down, even if they didn’t rise to the heights of that first work. But the central conceit of The Music of Chance actually worked better in the short piece it was based upon.
By now I was beginning to get a sense that he was going through the motions of being a postmodernist, that The New York Trilogy was a one-off and since then he was just picking up on some of the tricks and tropes without really believing in any of them. Indeed some of the later books that have played with the machinery of postmodernism, such as Travels in the Scriptorium and Man in the Dark, have been simply dire.
But interspersed with these works were others that I found myself enjoying almost despite myself. Leviathan, for instance, really wasn’t what I was expecting from Auster, and therefore for a while I wasn’t really sure how to take it, but it worked for me. Then Mr Vertigo, which I think only ever had a paperback edition in the UK as if even his publishers were losing a little faith in their author, but it was a wonderfully involving story. As was The Book of Illusion, one of my favourites among his novels, and The Brooklyn Follies which I also rate very highly. But these weren’t Auster novels, not at all the sorts of things that The New York Trilogy had led us to expect. If not absolutely straightforwardly realist novels, they were certainly heading in that direction.
In fact, I realized as I was reading Sunset Park, these are old fashioned sentimental novels, and none the worse for that.
It’s as if, in The New York Trilogy, he was dealing with the shapes, the building blocks of story. It was all ideas, each idea had hard, clearly defined edges, and because he was manipulating shapes in that way he didn’t have to bother about the fuzzy edges of emotion and feeling and common humanity. But that is something you can get away with only once; he did it brilliantly, but each time you try and repeat the trick it touches us less and excites the intellect less. Travels in the Scriptorium has to be a low point, it begins and ends in a featureless white room and in between gives us no reason to engage either our emotions or our intellect. But in between these exercises in manipulation, he has been trying to work with those fuzzy edges, build them in to his fictions. It is a learning process that has been carried out very much in public, and there have been inevitable failures along the way (Timbuktu, Oracle Night both try to sit awkwardly between the two approaches, and both crash ignominiously into a nomansland somewhere in between). But the sentiment of human feeling has been becoming a steadily greater feature of his work, indeed a hallmark of his best work.
Sunset Park is all fuzzy edges. It is a novel in which everything is manipulated not to play with abstract notions of story, but to make us identify sentimentally with the characters. Indeed, so strong is the sentiment in the novel that, right up until the last chapter, everything is clearly heading towards a succession of happy endings. I’ve never known this to be laid out so overtly within an Auster novel before. We have a larger than usual cast of well-drawn characters, we have seen the troubles that beset each one, we are sure in our own minds what twist of fate would ensure a happy ever after for each of the characters, and events are moving inexorably in those precise directions. Indeed, so overt is this progression that the extra twist in the very last chapter which knocks down all these hopes really comes as no surprise. We expect Auster to pull the rug out from under us, because no-one, surely, could march so unswervingly towards a whole series of happy endings and keep a straight face.
But even there, where we see the manipulation so blatantly, there is also a touching sense that these are people we care about and we actually are unhappy that they don’t achieve their happy ending. And it is this trick, the sort of trick that the author of The New York Trilogy would never even have had to contemplate, that makes Sunset Park one of the best novels that Auster has written for some time.