Sunday, September 29, 2013

Moon Palace, Paul Auster

Moon PalaceIt 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. 

"Marco Stanley Fogg is an orphan, a child of the sixties, a quester tirelessly seeking the key to his past, the answers to the ultimate riddle of his fate. As Marco journeys from the canyons of Manhattan to the deserts of Utah, he encounters a gallery of characters and a series of events as rich and surprising as any in modern fiction. Beginning during the summer that men first walked on the moon, and moving backward and forward in time to span three generations, Moon Palace is propelled by coincidence and memory, and illuminated by marvelous flights of lyricism and wit. Here is the most entertaining and moving novel yet from an author well known for his breathtaking imagination."

I picked up this novel, first published in 1989, while visiting my grandparents in New York in August, and although it took me a while to get to reading Moon Palace, I wasn't disappointed. It was a really great book, amusing and saddening by turns. For some reason, I had thought that the writing would be dense or something, but it really wasn't that difficult to get into the book. I quickly read twenty five pages and really liked them.

Moon Palace is a great story; in the first part of the book, I really liked how as Marco unpacks his uncle's books from their boxes and unearths the past, so does his furniture disappear, or what he had been using at furniture. His bed, tables and chairs, and desk all start disappearing as he takes out more books. As Marco puts it, "As I sold off my books, my apartment went through many changes. That was inevitable, for each time I opened another box, I simultaneously destroyed another piece of furniture. My bed was dismantled, my chairs shrank and disappeared, my desk atrophied into empty space. My life had become a gathering zero, and it was a thing I could actually see: a palpable, burgeoning emptiness. Each time I ventured into my uncle's past, it produced a physical result, an effect in the real world. The consequences were therefore always before my eyes, and there was no way to escape them." (pg. 24).

Moon Palace is such a great mix of humor and sadness; another hilarious part of the book is when the main character (who I can never quite call Marco in my head) goes to what used to be his friend's apartment and encounters a crowd of strangers, including Kitty Wu, who will eventually save him. He has barely eaten the whole summer, and proceeds to devour their whole spread, ending by jumping into a long, outrageous soliloquy on men on the moon as early as the fifteenth century. It was really, really funny, especially the parts that were kind of sad, such as his eating every crumb on their plates except for a pile of whitefish. That's how hungry he was. Scenes and images like these are what make Moon Palace a good novel. Because Marco's story itself isn't all that interesting. It's how it's described, the writing, that makes it interesting and wonderful. Moon Palace was much better than I thought it would be, and I loved the metaphor of the Moon Palace sign and all the moon related things woven throughout the book. I also really enjoyed the character of Kitty Wu. Everything about this book is such a mix of contradictions.

There were a lot of really witty and sardonic sections in Moon Palace, too many to quote all of them. But here are a few that really had me chuckling or really resonated with me somehow. All of these are from the earlier sections of the novel. "It went on like that for the next several days. My moods charged recklessly from one extreme to another, shunting me between joy and despair so often that my mind became battered from the journey. Almost anything could set off the switch: a sudden confrontation with the past, a chance smile from a stranger, the way the light fell on the sidewalk at any given hour. I struggled to achieve some equilibrium within myself, but it was no use: everything was instability, turmoil, outrageous whim. At one moment I was engaged in a philosophical quest, supremely confident that I was about to join the ranks of the illuminati; at the next moment I was in tears, collapsing under the weight of my own anguish. My self-absorption was so intense that I could no longer see things for what they were: objects became thoughts, and every thought was part of the drama being played out inside me." (pg. 54). This was both kind of funny and deeply sad at the same time; it hurt to see the main character struggling so badly, although he's at fault for his own trials and tribulations.

Here's another one that's funny and also so true: "In the streets, everything is bodies and commotion, and like it or not, you cannot enter them without adhering to a rigid protocol of behavior. To walk among the crowd means never going faster than anyone else, never lagging behind your neighbor, never doing anything to disrupt the flow of human traffic. If you play by the rules of this game, people will tend to ignore you. There is a particular glaze that comes over the eyes of New Yorkers when they walk through the streets, a natural and perhaps necessary form of indifference to others. It doesn't matter how you look, for example. Outrageous costumes, bizarre hairdos, T-shirts with obscene slogans printed across them - no one pays attention to such things. On the other hand, the way you act inside your clothes is of the utmost importance. Odd gestures of any kind are automatically taken as a threat. Talking out loud to yourself, scratching your body, looking someone directly in the eye: these deviations can trigger off hostile and sometimes violent reactions from those around you. You must not stagger or swoon, you must not clutch the walls, you must not sing, for all forms of spontaneous or involuntary behavior are sure to elicit stares, caustic remarks, and even an occasional shove or kick in the shins. I was not so far gone that I received any treatment of that sort, but I saw it happen to others, and I knew that a day might eventually come when I wouldn't be able to control myself anymore. By contrast, life in Central Park allowed for a much broader range of variables..." Marco goes on to detail how drastically different Central Park is in terms of what's allowed.

There were a lot more, but I've gone on with that long enough. Suffice to say Moon Palace is an excellent and witty novel, filled with many unexpected coincidences. I'll probably be reading more of Paul Auster's work in the future, such as his New York trilogy.

307 pages.

Rating: *****

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