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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
Paul Auster, born in 1947, is by far the best looking novelist of his generation. He's tall, slim, has full black hair and grey-green eyes, he's all around attractive. (It's MY op, ain't it?)
If you think the outward appearance of an author irrelevant, let me tell you, it's not when it comes to motivation. Teachers are just as silly as their students when they get a task with a deadline, believe me, I know.
I HAD to read the novel Moon Palace by Paul Auster for a teachers' training course on the subject of reading matter for German A-level students who have chosen English as their main subject, was informed about the date three months in advance and started reading three days before Day X. I finished at 11 p.m., couldn't quite make up my mind on what to think about the book (I was prejudiced as I had already read The New York Trilogy and disliked it, sorry, Deany!), went grumpily to the course and found a seat just opposite a poster showing Paul Auster. I decided at once to give a man looking like that a second chance!
I'd like to invite you to come with me to my course in which I'm going to apply all the clever things I've learnt; if you behave, you can sit at the back (definitely no chewing gum, I'm adamant!) We've got two lessons today, 90 minutes, that should be enough to give you some ideas on what the novel is about.
As starters we're going to listen to two songs which prepare us for two of the many themes of the novel. The first is Gloria Gaynor's "I am what I am". We won't interpret the whole song, only the line 'I am my own creation'. It leads us directly to the protagonist's signature which he decides to use at the age of 15 (after he's tried out several different versions) 'MS Fogg' "delighting in the fact that the initials stood for manuscript." "Every man is t
he author of his own life...The book you're writing is not yet finished. Therefore, it's a manuscript. What could be more appropriate than that?"
The invention of 'realities' instead of a pseudo-realistic concept of a chronological sequence of events and the abolition of the principle of causality in favour of the principle of coincidence is a characteristic of postmodernist literature. Short episodes are presented, seemingly unconnected, partly incoherent, on different levels of time, determined by chance and coincidence.
Unfortunately none of my students could get hold of Eminem's video clip 'The way I am', a perfect example of this postmodernist view of life, here transported into the world of music.
The author does not take the readers by their hands and lead them through the story, through a biography from cradle to coffin, they must find meaning themselves, based on their own personal experiences. This kind of approach leads, logically, to as many different interpretations as there are readers. The ONE TRUTH doesn't exist any more. (Has it ever?)
The teachers who held the training course had already read the novel with their students the year before and told us that they had reacted very positively. For them a reality like the one presented by Auster offers no problems, they've already understood that there's no certainty for them, not in their personal lives, not in their future careers. It's the older teachers who have to struggle with the concept of postmodernism! It's the older people who become dizzy when watching a video clip, the young ones have become used to the bits and pieces, to the patchwork which constitutes their lives.
The next song is Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle" which deals with a man who hasn't got time for his son. He can't be present at his birth, can't celebrate his birthda
ys with him, doesn't go with him on graduation day because he's busy. The refrain is 'I'm gonna be like you, Dad, you know I'm gonna be like you.' The fourth stanza shows that the child's innocent wish has become reality: the retired father calls his son who tells him that he hasn't got time for him. 'He'd grown up just like me, yeah/My boy was just like me'.
'Unparentness' is another important theme in the novel, its importance stressed by a parallel construction; the main protagonist finds his father who doesn't know his father, either. Later we'll read some background information on the history of the family in America, the absence of the father figure and the problems of a 'sibling society'.
Now we should start occupying ourselves with the text proper, we'll begin with the synopsis. What? How can we do the synopsis before reading one word? Ah, you think the students have already read the whole book and the teacher wants to test if they've done their homework. No, they haven't read the book, on the contrary, they were told not to do so!
Let's look at the first paragraph:
"It was the summer that men first walked on the moon. I was very young back then, but I did not believe there would ever be a future. I wanted to live dangerously, to push myself as far as I could go, and then see what happened to me when I got there. As it turned out, I nearly did not make it. Little by little, I saw my money dwindle to zero; I lost my apartment; I wound up living in the streets. If not for a girl named Kitty Wu, I probably would have starved to death. I had met her by chance only a short time before, but eventually I came to see that chance as a form of readiness, a way of saving myself through the minds of others. That was the first part. From then on, strange things happened to me. I took the job with the old man
in the wheelchair. I found out who my father was. I walked across the desert from Utah to California. That was a long time ago, of course, but I remember those days well. I remember them as the beginning of my life."
If there has ever been an ingenious first paragraph, here it is! Don't tell me that it doesn't arouse your curiosity and the wish to go on reading. Obviously we can expect a story full of adventurous, even dangerous happenings, a love story, a father-son story, something about the American West, the American dream maybe?, and at the end of all that the protagonist feels that he's at the BEGINNING of his life!
We already learn something about the technique the author uses, he's created a narrator looking back on his youth, presenting the events and commenting on them. As he's a creation, too, we must watch out for what he says, is he reliable, does he present the events truthfully or does he manipulate and influence us through his comments, willingly or unwillingly?
The novel is told on at least two levels of time, the narrator's and the young man's one, we can guess that there will be more when it comes to the father-son story, which must lead us into a past before the past.
The story is not freely suspended, but anchored in the history of the United States, we'll have to study what was going on at that time besides man's first walk on the moon, we'll have to find out in how far ' history' and 'his story' depend on each other.
A critic has characterised Auster's style as 'lean, fluid, vigorous, and delightfully lucid.' Indeed, the first paragraph is a proof that he's right. There are no baroque phrasings, no incomprehensible imagery. Short main clauses are used with the subject 'I' at the beginning. This leads to the assumption that this 'I' determines the action, i.e., h
is life, later, however, we learn that that is an illusion, that the protagonist is not the subject but the object of accidental events.
Have you heard the bell ringing? I have! I hope it has come across that I'm fascinated by the novel; maybe I could put a spark of interest in you. If so, good, if not, good as well. If a teacher's mood were dependent on the response they get, there wouldn't be many happy teachers around!
I'll leave you now, I must have a cup of coffee before going to my little ones, the 10-year-old beginners of English. What do we teach them in their fourth month of English? The use of 'its' and 'it's'! What did you say? You find that more essential than the self-development of a hitherto unknown American and would like to accompany me? Ah, well, come on then, better learn late than never.
You haven't forgotten, have you? No chewing-gum!
The story of an orphan, Marco Stanley Fogg, set against the backdrop of a rich American landscape and history.