I picked up Moon Palace on a whim while perusing a sale rack outside the door at Half-Price Books. Bookstores…. one of the few places where it’s still a good idea to go home with a stranger. In this case, an excellent idea.
It’s hard for me to summarize the plot because this was such a great read, and I don’t want to spoil any discoveries along the way. Moon Palace is the memoir of Marco Stanley Fogg – known as “M.S.” or simply “Fogg.” Fogg is orphaned at the age of eleven when a traffic accident kills his mother. Having never known his father, he goes to Chicago to live with his only remaining family, Uncle Victor: a genial, bachelor clarinetist who treats the boy as more companion than son, but shepherds him nonetheless safely into young adulthood, seeing Fogg off to Columbia University before heading west to tour with his band.
Victor’s death a few years later sends Fogg into the first of his – I’m not sure how to characterize it – bouts with depression? Breakdowns? It’s hard to nail down, because Fogg’s voice is rarely in crisis; it’s only his actions that scream for help. What quickly becomes apparent is that Fogg possesses no inward pull or forward momentum of his own; his only motivations arise from a stubborn sense of pride/morality – he never begs, whines, or complains – and deep love/respect for the few people who make up his circle. He finishes school because Uncle Victor wanted him to. He gets a job to avoid being a burden on his friend. Although he doesn’t want to go to Vietnam, he reports promptly for his Army physical and makes no attempt to influence their judgment. But he never expresses any ambitions of his own, any desires for wealth, renown, pleasure or success. He’s talented, intelligent, and applies himself diligently to whatever he does, but he never applies himself in his own service.
The treatment of time here deserves mention. The “present” tense of Fogg’s tale (“present” despite the entire story being narrated as a memoir) spans about three or four years – roughly 1968-1971. However, Fogg in his progress becomes the collector – in one case, the actual transcriber – of several life stories here, and that broadens the sweep of time and place considerably. What I noticed most was that, for all the sheer volume of detail being related, the story never dragged or overwhelmed. There was no backing up and muttering, “Wait, what just happened, now?” If anything, I felt borne along at a brisk pace: much to see, much to see, no dawdling! Whenever we would hit a timepost – the mention of an hour/day/week passing, or some historical marker – I felt like Lucy emerging from the wardrobe all bewildered: “…but I’ve been gone for hours!”
Credit that to the clarity of Auster’s style: his sentences are brisk and to the point, almost rapid-fire in places. There are no winding curlicue flourishes and no “old-reliable” filler clichés. (Aspiring writers take note: one section in which Fogg attempts to describe the room for his blind employer amounts to a free class; pay attention.) That said, it’s not stripped-down, either. His imagery is vivid and beautiful. Some of my favorites:
To keep myself company, I would sometimes put the instrument together and blow into it, filling the apartment with weird ejaculations of sound, a hurly-burly of squeaks and moans, of laughter and plaintive snarls.
As I stood in front of the door now, with sweat dripping into my eyes and my muscles feeling all spongy and stupid, I wondered if I had heard the stranger correctly.
The sunny, translucent innards sank into the cracks, and suddenly there was muck everywhere, a bobbing slush of slime and shell.
I was drenched by the time I woke up, my whole body pummeled, the drops bouncing off me like buckshot.
At other times, however, when his selfishness and arrogance thundered out of control, he struck me as nothing more than a vicious old man, a burnt-out maniac living in the borderland between madness and death.
I could go on and on… literally, my highlighter got a workout with this one. I enjoyed Moon Palace both as a writer and a reader, and am already looking for more of Auster’s work to put on my CBR6 list.