According to Auster, as a starving artist fresh out of college he dashed off a few formulaic mystery novels under a nom-de plume to bring in cash. I have reason to believe this, considering what Auster’s pictures looked like from when he was in his twenties. His face had a sunken and brooding quality to it, as if he’d not only learned how to skip a meal, but also how to get by on little sleep. To this day, Auster won’t reveal what those early books were called, nor what his pen name was.
When he started writing under his own name, he produced a large output of good work in a relatively short amount of time, namely the novellas that comprise his New York Trilogy as well as Moon Palace (with one misstep in between, The Country of Lost Things). Moon Palace is arguably the best of his books. It’s a coming of age novel unlike most others of its type. Personally, I’d rank it above The Catcher in the Rye but below A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in terms of what the best 20th century bildungsroman is.
Many aspects of the plot seem pilfered from experience. The main character is a young man with the unlikely name of Marco Stanley Fogg (a name as portentous as Stephen Dedalus or Benny Profane from V.). He’s a young man with no practical ability to make or keep money, who adheres to a strict starvation diet, and who somehow finds the time to read an enormous amount of books. His harsh asceticism rivals the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger.
The opening paragraph offers a short moment of prolepsis where the narrator gives the reader an idea of the story that’s going to unfold. Auster writes “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.” Through an unpredictable chain of events, those events do occur, with a lot of other strange scenes besides.
Part of what makes Moon Palace a fantastic read is just the way his story takes shape. Much of Auster’s career has revolved around stories where it’s hard to differentiate coincidence from fate, and this is the story that best represents his universe of happenstance and predestination. Readers of Great Expectations are bound to see connections.
Another thing that makes this book great is that it’s not just the travails of a character that’s described, it’s the tumultuousness of American history that takes over the foreground. It starts with the moon landing, and manages to make its way backwards from there, chronicling in reverse the American spirit of exploration, and how it capitulates itself into outer space. It’s a panoramic view of America that you don’t normally come across in novels, especially in coming of age novels.
Bottom Line: There’s no reason why you shouldn’t read this book, except if you’re broke and the library doesn’t carry it. Moon Palace is 300 pages approximately, but it’s suspenseful and intriguing so it’s very possible you’ll finish it in a few days.
Have you read Moon Palace by Paul Auster–if so what did you think?