by Paul Auster
320 pages, Faber and Faber, London, 1989
Review by Bill Kirton
I should never have started reading this. Two questions then – why did I start and why am I saying I shouldn’t have? I started because Auster was recommended to me by a friend most of whose tastes I share, who’s a voracious reader and who claims Auster as her favourite writer. I started with New York Trilogy and was bored stiff and irritated by it. Writing fiction about writing and writers is a precarious endeavour; making one of your characters yourself – giving him your name, location and profession – is provocative and calls for a few more clues than Auster gives you (or, at least, gave me); a narrative that seems to turn around itself time and time again is frustrating. I told my friend all this so she suggested I try one of his more conventional (not her word) stories, with a plot, etc. Of the two she suggested, I chose Moon Palace.
OK, I should preface everything that follows with a recognition that Auster is a revered, admired novelist whose reputation has been earned through a series of books which have been praised by respected literary critics with far better pedigrees than mine. Even I recognise that he can definitely write. Many sentences stopped me in my tracks and I re-read them just to savour their perfection. Just one example – ‘“He was alone now, entirely separate from everyone: a bulbous, egg-shaped monad plodding through the shambles of his consciousness.” And he can definitely think, too. He slides so easily into instantly graspable elements of existentialism that Sartre (although perhaps not Camus) could have learned a thing or two from him. He calls attention to the fact that many of the actions his characters perform are given validity retrospectively. One character “was no longer going to let others determine who he was”, the first person narrator sees ‘“a way of saving myself thro the minds of others.”
Also, the three separate but closely linked stories of the three generations all have the same shape and end in the same way, so we have the famous critical response to Waiting for Godot as ‘a play in which nothing happens. Twice’ repeated here. Thrice. So, with his immaculate credentials as writer, existentialist and absurdist beyond question, perhaps this ‘review’ is nothing more than an indictment of my skill as a reader.
I think the problem is possibly that he’s actually a very good story teller and when the narrative pauses or slides to give way to his self-awareness about constructing it, I feel let down. I’m becoming absorbed in the story and the characters and, suddenly, he seems to tire of them and find it much more interesting to speculate about the nature of books, reading, words. His preoccupation with writing still keeps making itself evident and actually undermines the narrative. Perhaps that’s the point. It seems that, to him, narratives are unreliable, improbable, even impossible, so he won’t give me the satisfaction of getting lost in one. At one moment I’m enjoying the company of his characters and their idiosyncrasies, the next they’ve retreated and I’m confronted with his solipsism. His narrator even says at one point “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.” Well, great Paul, why not just let us share them with you through the drama? Stop telling us self-evident absurdist truths such as “the world enters us through our eyes, but we cannot make sense of it until it descends into our mouths.”
And yet, and yet … the simplicity of some of his images is very powerful. The narrator glories in the sole legacy he gets from a much-loved uncle – his books. He then has to start selling them to survive and, as they disappear, his life becomes “a gathering zero”. The novel that’s being written by the father within his novel is marked by coincidences and melodrama, but so is Moon Palace itself – deliberately so.
At one point he writes of “imagination in its purest form: the act of bringing nonexistent things to life, of persuading others to accept a world that [is] not really there.” That’s a distillation of the novelist’s art. It’s also a wry articulation of the dilemma of existential identity. But faced with that dilemma, many of us enjoy escaping into structured, convincing fictions which seem to convey meaning, purpose, resolution. Ultimately, we know they’re false, but the illusion of that alternative reality is comforting. Auster is too good a story teller. He gives us that escape dimension but he hangs notices everywhere to remind us of its (and our) unreality.