Have you ever experienced this as a reader? Every book you’re reading over a short period of time seems to be exploring the same issues, themes, or cultural touchstones. Maybe it’s not all that uncommon. Perhaps, certain readers tend to be drawn to books that explore specific themes. Still, the serendipitous experience feels like you’ve enrolled in a college seminar, with readings selected to help you understand and reflect upon social and cultural issues. The last few books I’ve read have converged—almost eerily—in my mind, and their thematic issues have been rolling around in my mind for a while now.
A couple of years after the events of September 11, several authors began weaving the tragedy into their narratives. The best did so in ways that not only illuminated the reader’s understanding of the characters, but also captured the collective sensibility of that time period. Books like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Falling Man by Don DeLillo, and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud come to mind. Lately, I’ve noticed fiction writers dealing with even more recent events, specifically the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the 2008 economic collapse. Jonathan Franzen captures this period’s sense of loss, unease, and anxiety brilliantly in Freedom . The novel’s main characters, Walter and Patti, do everything that good, solid people should do. Patti takes baked goods to new neighbors, while Walter defends the environment against overpopulation. But, none of their actions can prevent disasters—personal, communal, or national. Freedom, despite its promise, does not equal control.
With all these thoughts of American identity fresh in my mind, I read Sunset Park by Paul Auster. Sunset Park is almost half the length of Freedom , but packs the same powerful punch. Twenty-eight year old Miles is living in Florida under self-imposed estrangement from his family. His work is known as “trashing out”—going into foreclosed, abandoned homes and picking up what remains. Eventually, Miles winds up living as a squatter in an abandoned house in Sunset Park—a sketchy neighborhood in New York. His roommates—Ellen, Alice, and Nathan—have their own stories as do Miles’ father, mother, and other peripheral characters.
Every character in Sunset Park is broken in some essential way, and there is an overriding sense of loss, sadness, and regret that permeates their stories. A student working on her doctoral dissertation, Alice is obsessed with the 1946 film The Best Years of our Lives . This title comes up frequently and is referenced by a peripheral character as well. This film is about soldiers returning from World War II and finding an unfamiliar, alien America. This movie reference beautifully parallels the anxiety experienced by the novel’s characters and, I think, by our country as a whole. Toward the end of the novel, Miles remarks on the city’s skyline:
As the car travels across the Brooklyn Bridge and he looks at the immense building on the other side of the East River, he thinks about the missing buildings, the collapsed and burning buildings that no longer exist… he wonders if it is worth hoping for a future when there is no future. (307-308)
Onto A Visit from the Goon Squad —an amazing follow up read to Sunset Park . Just when I was thinking that this book was less a commentary on national identity and more about individuals’ attempts to create and maintain connections, a passage like this renders me speechless:
‘I don’t get it Jules,’ Stephanie said. ‘I don’t get what happened to you.’ Jules stared at the glittering sky line of lower Manhattan without recognition. ‘I’m like America,’ he said. Stephanie swung around to look at him, unnerved. ‘What are you talking about?’ she said. ‘Are you off your meds?’ ‘Our hands are dirty,’ Jules said. (94-95)
These three novels are perfect examples of how fiction provides another lens through which we come to understand historical, cultural, and social events. Living inside the head of another character can create self-recognition and self-awareness. And, reading fiction can place our personal experiences into a larger context. As disparate and divided as we seem to be, I think we share a common identity that can be explored through a common literature. These novels are excellent additions to this body of literature.