I just finished reading Paul Auster’s novel, Moon Palace. It’s the second novel of his I’ve read. The first was The Book of Illusions, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I wish I could come up with a better summation than that. “Thoroughly enjoyed” doesn’t really say much, does it? But there you go. I enjoyed every aspect of the novel, every aspect of Auster’s writing style. He doesn’t use overtly dramatic prose. His writing is understated but not reduced to bare bones like Raymond Carver (whose writing I greatly admire for different reasons). Not to say there aren’t any dramatic moments. They do happen, but that’s exactly it: they happen on their own, not through contrived or forced writing. No build up. No sudden change in the speed of the writing. Simply presented, and dramatic.
Fantastic things happen to the people in Auster’s novels, things you would never believe, things that would never happen in real life. Yet he makes them believable and compelling by drawing his characters with tenderness, not sentimentality, by pulling us into their worlds through details that seem unremarkable until they’re woven into the narrative. He may not say much about the person, their personality, but the world they inhabit tells us enough about them so that we care and relate to them. So when these fantastic events finally come around, we’re already so involved that believability is not an issue. We just want to know what’s going to happen next.
I say this more about The Book of Illusions than Moon Palace. Moon Palace is similar in that the narrator experiences a personal tragedy and finds a measure of peace beyond the grief, and following him along this journey makes for a good story. But Moon Palace doesn’t have the same focus as The Book of Illusions. The narrator goes from one shitty experience to another, then we delve into the equally shitty (though not hopeless) experiences of another character, and then another character, so that near the end we don’t know who we’re supposed to care about more. Auster will introduce a new character, and just like that the novel is now about that character. In the end, it’s revealed how they’re all connected (through a very fantastic series of coincidences that comes a bit too close to being unbelievable), but the thread that ties their stories together is a bit weak. It’s almost as if Auster wrote three self-contained short novels about three different people, and then found a way to string them together into a full-length novel.
Not that it doesn’t make for good reading. Auster is such a skilled writer, even when the story wanders off, it’s a pleasure to read. But by the time I got to the last third of the novel, there were more than a few pages I found myself skimming through. I got impatient with some of the back story, details I knew wouldn’t really make much difference to the story (and didn’t). And the ending, unlike the ending for The Book of Illusions, didn’t do much for me. After all the shit this guy goes through, then survives, and goes through again and survives again, that the novel would come to a close at the end of one of these cycles where, probably through some lucky coincidence, the narrator would pull through yet again, doesn’t seem like much of an ending. The last line could have been: “And so it goes.”
The Book of Illusions dives into the lives of each character in a similar fashion, exploring the chaos they’ve all survived in their own particular way, but its wanderings seem more directed, less strung together by fantastic coincidences. It could be argued that coincidence is the whole theme of Moon Palace, that if it weren’t for chance happenings, we wouldn’t learn half as much about ourselves as we do. That’s not much of a theme if you ask me, but it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter that The Book of Illusions was a better book for me. Moon Palace is a good novel and a good read. Even if it doesn’t come together in the end as well as The Book of Illusions, there is so much in it that is so good, it’d be a shame to pass it by.
P.S., I was just reading the first page of the first book in Auster’s New York Trilogy: “Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance.” Now that could have been the last line of Moon Palace.