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I've come to relish reading a new Paul Auster book. I know I will be engaged and challenged in equal measures. Although grounded in reality featuring real characters his stories seem to have a hypnotic quality and a dimension with breaks out of the often mundane events that are presented in the plot. Paul Auster is a successful writer whose other works include 'Oracle Nights' (2005), and 'The New York Trilogy' (1988) as well as the scripts for the films 'Smoke' (1995) and 'Blue in the Face' (1995).
'Moon Palace' first published in 2004 is the story of three men from different generations all linked though fortune and fate. Marco Stanley Fogg is the pivotal figure of the story; we see events unfold through his eyes. Fogg is a student in his 20's in the late 1960's. Never knowing who his father was his single mother brought him up. When his mother dies prematurely before he is in his teens he moves in with his uncle Victor, a professional musician with a love of books. Living with Victor an unorthodox and slightly bohemian character Marco learns to love literature and develops a wish to write which leads him after school to Columbia University in New York. Following his uncle's death and through a series of unfortunate circumstances Fogg slowly begins on a downward spiral that eventually leads him to living rough on the streets of New York.
Thomas Effing is a rich, wheelchair bound elderly artist (retired) who lives a reclusive lifestyle with his trusty housekeeper Mrs Hume. As Marco Fogg's and Effing's paths cross an unlikely friendship slowly begins and the enigmatic Effing discloses to Fogg the dark secrets of his long and colourful life.
The third man in this episodic triangle is the excessively overweight Solomon Barber a middle-aged academic and history lecturer at a minor university in Minnesota. Barber also has secrets in his past and again through a set on unlikely circumstances he too meets up with Marco Fogg for what turns out to be a significant turning point in both their lives.
The story is told in the first person by Marco but it also includes extended flashbacks dating back almost three quarters of a century to the far West then a frontier land at a time when modern America was still being forged from a wilder more dangerous beginning. Although the scope and themes of Auster's book are truly epic but the story still feels personal and retains an element of intimacy with the reader.
As he does in many of his books and stories Auster plays with the idea of fate and how small insignificant events can lead to the most life changing of consequences. He also explores the power of the written word. All his characters are in some way touched by books or books play a significant part in their lives this ides is examined and emphasised throughout. Books are used in a more symbolic way too, when Victor dies having spent what small amount of money he earned he leaves Marco his most valuable possessions his varied and vast collection of books, which represent his knowledge and experience. These books literally become the foundation of Marco's life and in part books end up being his saviour.
Auster has also attempted in this story to examine different types of journey that are intrinsic to the great American novel whether it's the drug crazed high speed dash across the States in Kerouac's 'On the Road' or a more symbolic generational journey of families both in space and time in Steinbeck's 'East of Eden' stories that deal with grand idea of 'America' always involve movement and a sense of progress to self awareness and discovery of some fundamental truth. 'Moon Palace' also uses the idea of the journey as a means of discovery. We are presented with both a physical journey of all three men as they at different times travel across the continent, journeys that will define their lives. All three are also on internal personal journeys to try and fill the gaps that circumstances have created in their lives. For Marco this is the loss of his mother and the mystery surrounding the identity of his father. For Thomas Effing it is guilt and regret at the estrangement of his family and for Solomon Barber it is his failure to achieve in his career and a sense of missed opportunity in his personal life. All three reach a destination on their personal journey by the end of the book but all have surprising and shocking revelations to content with.
Although there are two strong female characters in the story which Auster does flesh out to an extent Mrs Hume the loyal housekeeper and Kitty Marco's Chinese American girlfriend, they really are peripheral even though in the case of Kitty important characters. The story only slightly touches on the relationship between male and the female characters; it delves much deeper into the relationship between the three men.
Finally I have to mention Paul Auster's style of writing. I get the feeling that Auster is a writer's writer meaning that his prose is such that the fluency and naturalness with which he tells the story while being accepted by the reader will be even more appreciated by fellow authors for its craftsmanship and artistry. Auster as a way of speaking to the reader connecting with them through the voices of his characters expressing emotions and concepts in a few lines of dialogue that many others would struggle with paragraph upon paragraph of descriptive analysis.
"There we were in that enormous country, with nothing around us, nothing but empty space for miles around, and for all that it was like being in prison - like sharing a cell with a man who won't stop looking at you, who just sits there waiting for you to turn around so he can stick a knife in your back...
Eventually it just stops being there. There's no world, no land, no nothing... the only place you exist is your head."
Auster also has an eye for the absurd and one of my favourite passages early on in the book where Marco is relating how his odd name was treated at school.
" Names are the easiest to attack, and Fogg lent itself to a host of spontaneous mutilations: Fag and Frog...with countless meteorological references: Snowball Head, Slush, Man, Drizzle Mouth. Once my last name had been exhausted they turned to their attention to the first. The o at the end of Marco was obvious enough, yielding epithets such as Dumbo, Jerko, and Mumbo Jumbo, but what they did in other ways defied all expectations. Marco became Marco Polo; Marco Polo became Polo Shirt; Polo Shirt became Shirt Face; and Shirt Face became Shit Face."
The book is peppered with clever writing I particularly enjoyed the passages dealing with Marco's time living rough in New York and the flashback to the cave in the desert. I found this a compelling read.
Any criticisms? Well one minor one I suppose, it could have been longer for me. I thought the conclusion to the story felt rather brisk. Although there is a clear conclusion to events, Auster doesn't leave you in limbo, I felt there was more mileage in the characters and story. I wanted to know more. I guess I enjoyed reading it so much that I wasn't ready to let go and I suppose this is also part of Auster's skill as an author.
Overall this is an enjoyable intriguing book that I'm sure will please and delight Auster fans. To those of you that are new to him this might be a good introduction. The story contains accessible elements, a central mystery that slowly unfolds, a storyline that takes us form 60's New York to the Arizona desert in the early 1900's and a collection of vividly portrays central characters all described in Auster's fluid and insightful style. Enough to attract any keen reader.
'Moon Palace' can be bought from Amazon in paperback (320 pages)- published by Faber and Faber (ISBN-10: 0571142206/ ISBN-13: 978-0571142200) for just £3.99 (+ p&p) at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2007
The story of an orphan, Marco Stanley Fogg, set against the backdrop of a rich American landscape and history.