There is something in the way in which Paul Auster writes that stays with me for days afterwards. It lingers in thought, a nagging urge to better understand the prose; that no matter how deeply you feel about the story, there’s another layer unfound, asking to be revealed.
And so it has been with Moon Palace, an older Auster novel (from 1989) which only now have I finally managed to consume.
Set as the sixties were giving way to the seventies, in the shadow of men landing on the moon and the sense of a rapidly changing world, the novel is a first person narrative told through the words and reflections of the young Marco Stanley Fogg, a delightful composite of a name. On the one hand old-school, faintly comic Dickensian while at the same time offering whispers of exploration and adventures to come.
And it is indeed, a novel of melancholic exploration, both physical and psychological. A story which takes us from the urban sprawl of a modern Manhattan to the visions of older America, the vastness of the West and the myths that lie at the heart of the country, the continent and the people, indigenous or otherwise, who have called it their home. An existential journey through the nation’s expansive evolution, it’s no coincidence that Fogg’s story ultimately heads west.
Knitted together by a series of fairly unlikely coincidences the story uses a fiendishly clever picaresque style, allowing us to learn tales of the main protagonists over the course of three generations. And, in so doing we find ourselves in the midst of a story that seems to repeat on itself, the notion that history is repetitive. Fogg’s early descent into homelessness and despair, living off trash can scraps and taking to shelter in a cave in the heart of Central Park is later mirrored by the tale of his benefactor Effing, who relays to Fogg his own cave-dwelling travails as a young artist lost in the Utah desert, many years before.
Auster clearly has a lot to say across a gamut of themes within the novel; each episode a contemplation on history and family, but also on the nature of art and the act and indeed importance of story-telling within our culture. There is Fogg’s grief-induced quest to read every book inherited from his uncle as he slowly extracts himself from society; the meta-fiction re-telling of Sol Barber’s poorly written fantasy western and the book length, pre-death obituary of Effing. With each story comes a new revelation, ever more bizarre but no less compelling, bringing the protagonists’ lives closer together.
And then there is Kitty Wu. The contrast to the old world order of Effing’s art and Barber’s academia. The love of Fogg’s life (within these pages, at least) Wu is at once a representation of heroism and tragedy. Of Chinese origin, she shares a backstory similar to Fogg’s. Lost and trying to find her way in a new landscape she frequently displays the strength that Fogg seems to lack; becoming his salvation and, ultimately a victim of his weakness and a representation of historic mistakes made by men in the name of forging new frontiers.
Ultimately, Moon Palace is a reflection of human existence and the way in which we stubbornly refuse to learn from our mistakes. As Douglas Adams once said: “We live and learn. At least, we live.” So this is the fundamental truth at which Auster appears to be suggesting, symbolised throughout by reference to the moon. On one level we have a book about exploration in the shadow of the moon landings while at the same time the symbol of a history of blunders, the cyclical nature of the moon mirroring that of our protagonist’s lives.
More than two decades have passed since a solitary year spent on the campus at the University of Rhode Island. I looked a lot younger than my twenty-one years although in my mind I was already a seasoned man of the world, even when all other evidence suggested strongly that that was not the case.
There was something refreshingly archetypal in the appearance of the URI (as me and my fellow alumni call it) campus; a solid beacon of New England academia. Buildings of learning, of heavy stone and imposing heft, classically carved and angular; borders of well-mown lawn quads. Old buildings blending in with more modern, practical blocks of concrete and steel. Names which have stayed with me through the years: Roger Williams, Butterfield Hall, Roosevelt Hall, Heathman House, Memorial Union and the Ram’s Den.
About six weeks into my year on campus I made the monumental decision to have a haircut. The reason for the monumental nature of this decision was due to the fact that this would mark the first time I’d ever had a haircut on foreign soil (England doesn’t count).
‘I’d like a haircut, please,’ I said to the girl of similar age to me who was sitting behind a desk at the entrance to the hair salon. It was all a new experience, there was no receptionist at my barber shop back home, just a row of seats of varying comfort and some massively out-of-date car magazines.
The girl smiled, which, as a young and somewhat lust-starved male thousands of miles from home, I naively took as a sign of clear romantic interest – as opposed to the general friendliness she was actually trying to convey.
‘Sure,’ she said, quite beautifully ‘Have you got an appointment?’
I’d never had to make an appointment for a haircut before. I was thrown.
‘No’ I replied, as it seemed the honest thing to say, and perfectly encapsulated my predicament.
‘OK, well, we’re really booked up today but we can do Tuesday.’
This was as close to arranging a date with her as I would ever get.
‘Tuesday, er, yeah, Tuesday should be cool,’ I said, because I’m an idiot.
She smiled and I smiled and for moment it was obvious we were in love with each other.
‘We can do 4:3o.’
‘Cool. What’s your name?’
‘Gareth,’ I said, because that is, in fact, my name.
Now, I’m Welsh and, while I don’t have a strong Welsh accent, it was clear that I was in no way shape or form, American. Which had, on occasion, led to slight communication problems.
‘Jarret?’ she asked.
‘No, Gareth,’ I felt our relationship was on the rocks and considered whether perhaps we should start seeing other people.
‘Jarret,’ she once again said, as though trying to convince me that this was, in fact, my name after all.
‘No. Gareth,’ I said ‘With a ‘Gee’.’
There was a brief pause in the exchange; an impasse of sorts.
‘Gee. Gee for Grape,’ I said, not fully fluent in the phonetic alphabet at the time yet still not entirely sure why I opted for grape. She laughed, the way she used to in the early days.
‘Gee, for grape?’
‘Yes. Gee for grape.’
She wrote the letter G into the diary, then looked up, awaiting the next letter.
‘R,’ I said, which she wrote obediently down.
And, sure enough, an appointment was made for a haircut at 4:30pm the following Tuesday for a moron from Wales answering to the name of Grape.
Autumn came to Rhode Island around about the third week of October. Red and orange leaves swirled and danced on the wind and the nights’ grew dark and bitingly cold as we made our way from classrooms to halls to the comforting corner of the Mews Tavern in town.
And in a department store at the Wakefield Mall, I bought some clippers and never had my hair cut in America again.
‘Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.”
So goes the opening line from Simon & Garfunkel’s elegiac hymn America.
It’s a simple song, young lovers on a road trip across and into the heart of an America that no longer exists, maybe never truly existed.
The playful storytelling lyrics of the lovers on their adventure – the stories they create of fellow travellers, the cities and towns, the buses and trains, the hopefulness of a brighter future together, betrayed by the pervading sadness laced through the music. This is quintessential Simon & Garfunkel – a song of the sixties. A song of its time and yet a song without time – somehow managing to both create a sense of the era whilst regaling themes that live through the ages.
It’s a song that resonates personally with me; lyrics that speak to me and remind me of my own youth, my own adventures and the divided mind that pervaded and lingered. The optimist and the merchant of doom upon my shoulder, fighting a battle for supremacy neither would ever truly win.
For me, Simon & Garfunkel represents a time of life, a time on the road. Young and vibrant, looking for adventure and romance, love and lust. A young Brit on the highways of America and the byways of Australia. As I listen with forty-year-old ears to The Boxer, crystal clear on the iPod, my mind drifting back and away from the rain and the gloom of another South Wales November night, drifting to that other time of life; a bus in Newport, Rhode Island, head resting against the cold glass window as I stared out at a golden sunset, shining across the bay and bathing the autumn reds in its soft light, with the harmony of the singing in my ear
“When I left my home and family, I was no more than a boy.
Lie-la-lie, drum, crash, lie-la-lie-lie-lie-la-lie-la-la-lala-lie
I travelled the states with some friends by car. Friends now lost to time and the changes of life, faces that have slipped from view, lost in the congestion of my mind.
I was one of four young lads from the UK, twenty-one and facing a future as clear and bright as the Wyoming sky at which we marvelled. Driving through long, hot days. Late nights on empty, dark freeways and interstates, watching neon signs and golden arches pass us by. Hello darkness my old friend, they sang, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel, through the tinny stereo as our bleary eyes and weary minds searched for a motel, the non-drivers nodding heads and drifting towards unconsciousness and the Sounds of Silence.
Different journeys, different days, different places. New York nights in a bar on Amsterdam Avenue, bowls of chilli and bottles of Heineken, a story on the news about a man stealing women’s shoes in Central Park as the first flurries of winter snow drifted across the window. The night before Thanksgiving. Bleecker Street the obvious choice, the New York cliché. But it’s Wednesday Morning, 3am that brings this back to me – the opening bars, the opening lines:
I can hear the soft breathing of the girl that I love,
As she lies here beside me, asleep with the night.
The song on the walkman as I slipped into drunken sleep in the hostel dorm we’d checked into to save money, the song that blocked out the wails and yells of those more inebriated than me.
El Condor Pasa – a recurring soundtrack to a dream. Men in ponchos on Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, the day we went to Alcatraz. It came back to me repeatedly down the years, these poncho wearing pipers, appearing on planes and street corners, at football matches and weddings. Weird dreams, strange symbolism for the psychoanalysts.
I listen to Simon & Garfunkel still, among other things, other music. For me it’s night-time music, forever attached to driving lonely roads where their harmonies accompany the tired eye staring beyond the glare of the headlights. I catch a tune, a melody or a lyric and I’m transported, travelling through time to those other periods – neither better nor worse than today, but vastly different.
Different times, different versions of me. Each version smiling, nostalgic and Feeling Groovy.
Like this? Why not take a look at my short story ‘Last Day of Summer’ available for just 99p to download onto iphone, kindle and all other smart devices or e-readers from cutalongstory
Last Day of Summer – the new short story by Gareth Hill
Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin was playing on the radio as I drove in the car earlier this morning. It’s a piece of music that I rarely listen to but have always loved. A piece of music that provokes the imagination, attaches itself to memories.
Now, for a filmic fool such as I, it immediately brings to my mind Woody Allen’s Manhattan – both his classic movie and indeed the general idea of Manhattan that exists throughout all of his New York based films (the older, funnier ones or otherwise). There’s good for reason for this, of course, namely because it is the music that works as a backing track in Allen’s masterful love letter to the city, in particular the iconic opening scene – the black and white imagery of the skyline, the city, the streets; the music accompanying Allen’s voiceover of the writer, struggling comically to find the right words with which to open his New York themed story.
But Rhapsody’s influence on the mind certainly doesn’t begin and end with Woody Allen. The score itself is a soundtrack to New York – a composition that pays homage to the era and city in which it was born. Written and first performed in New York in 1924 Rhapsody In Blue is the anthem of New York’s golden age. This is the Manhattan of Wharton, of Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby; of high society and seedy speakeasies. From its warbling woodwind opening, the distinctive clarinet solo and brass accompaniment, Gershwin blends classic orchestral composition with a rattling jazz sound that’s emblematic of the ‘Jazz Era Roaring Twenties,’ of the grandiose and the opulence that heralded pre-Wall St Crash Manhattan and the rise of the great melting pot metropolis as a global city.
It’s a grand, sweeping score of rousing orchestral highs and gentle, seductive piano lows, the slow pace of a cold and hung-over morning, the sudden bursting to life of a bustling avenue. Music that rises and falls like the skyline, again to reflect this burgeoning age of the towering skyscrapers. Over more than fifteen minutes the score ebbs and flows, meanders and accelerates, every note, every change of pace or instrument reflecting the growing diversities of the city, the changing moods and varying sounds – from the rattle of the subway, the tumult of Times Square or the tiptoe through the quiet streets at night, moving between the shadows and rising steam of the manholes.
It’s all rather explicitly romanticised to be fair – reflective of a New York that exists through the softening lens of the film camera or, indeed a poetic imagination.
This is exactly why it retains such significance for me. I was an American Studies student in Liverpool in the 90s and Rhapsody brings me back to the lecture halls of those days – particularly the early days of the course, prior to me actually having the opportunity to visit New York, experience it with my own eyes, ears and, indeed nose. Before heading stateside myself I grew immersed in the history and literature of post-Civil War America – noting, as is true of Pre-Great War London, how the socio-politics of an age rub, often awkwardly, with the artistic output of the time and place.
I was growing interested in the changing times but more so of the writing of the era – of Wharton, Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald et al. The Lost Generation, decamped to Paris as their fictionalised accounts of ‘back home’ took on a form of reality. Listening to the opening solo of Gershwin’s masterpiece sends me, not only to this idealised, fantasy New York, but to a cold classroom at a Liverpool campus on a wet Tuesday morning sometime towards the end of 1993.
A scene, I suspect, that’s someway removed from the ‘musical kaleidoscope of America’ that Gershwin himself envisioned.
An ordinary Tuesday, my mind elsewhere.
Back in work after a long weekend away. Our first anniversary, we’d gone to Cheltenham, got in an argument with some pompous prick who was trying to let the whole restaurant know how important he was, spoiling the atmos, ruining the vibe, belittling waiter. I said something to him, can’t remember what, caused a scene, made his wife angry, got a free bottle of champagne from the waiter, felt kind of good.
Jo smiled, thought it was cool, a bit rock’n’roll from her boring husband of a year. We drank the free champagne, chased it with whiskey, went back to the room.
We went to Blenheim Palace, learned about Churchill, about old imperial glories, walked through the rose garden, held hands and thought of the future.
We drove home, the M4 to Cardiff. Jo felt ill, her stomach turned, really ill – we stopped twice. Got home, she went to bed, she felt worse. A doctor’s visit, an admission to hospital – a sudden, unexpected worry. Monday night they let her home, a few day’s rest she’d be fine.
An ordinary Tuesday, my mind elsewhere.
Jo at home I went to work, stayed local. A meeting in Newport, a coffee, a meeting with Initial, the women cleaning managers – a regular monthly meet. Talk of cleaning, of faulty floor polish, of dilution control. I wasn’t really there, my mind drifting to Jo, to Cheltenham, to familiar fantasies away from this life, this job. I smiled on the outside, ever the actor, promised to follow up on the action plans, couldn’t wait to leave.
I wanted a sandwich.
I sat in the car, ten to two – my mind elsewhere, not paying attention to Simon Mayo. Something about a plane crash, sounded serious, didn’t quite register. I pulled out onto Newport Road. He was talking about New York, my interest piqued. New York did that – a strange affinity with the place.
I contemplated McDonalds – maybe not.
Mayo continued talking – I liked Mayo, he kept me company on lonely afternoons in the car – book reviews, film reviews, interviews. I used to listen to him years before, on the way to school – he was at Radio 1 then, having fun with listeners confessions, bigging up John Kettley (he’s a weatherman). All pretty trite, pretty trivial, just a bit of fun. Now he was talking about a plane crash – cutting across Pauline McColl’s business news.
The World Trade Centre was on fire, he told me.
Like a scene from the Towering Inferno, he told me.
Sounded bad, I thought.
I had an affinity with New York. Most people who’ve spent some time there do.I’d been to New York more than once. Been to the World Trade Centre. I liked them, simple giant blocks, towering over all others, squared up against the pointy, art deco behemoths of Empire State and Chrysler.
Fire billowing out of floors near the top, he said.
That sounded bad. The top was a long way up.
I liked Simon Mayo – liked that he’d made the leap from trivial DJ; liked that tone, the one that said life throws up issues but really, is it all that serious at the end of the day. I drove along Newport Road, opted against McDonalds, a wise choice. My phone rang, my boss. I ignored it. How could a plane crash into there? What a tragic, silly accident.
A year ago today I’d been in Mauritius, on a honeymoon that kept me away from a fuel strike that brought Britain to a close. That was good; good to be away, oblivious. I drove down by Roath Park; two o’clock – time for the news. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. Mayo cut in – reports now say that 2 planes have crashed into the World Trade Centre.
This was not an ordinary Tuesday, my mind tuned in.
I parked the car – listened to the reports. It was a warm but slightly overcast day in Cardiff. Roath Park was busy, dog walkers and pensioners, mums and toddlers. Two planes? What was that all about? Both towers were on fire, both hit by planes. How could that be, I thought, my mind already aware of the answer. I listened to the reports – vivid pictures in my head. I’d been there, often, back in the nineties. I knew that part of the world. It was familiar, iconic, romantic.
History unfolds unknowingly – it doesn’t realise it’s history.
I remained, seated in my car listening. Descriptions that tumbled from the speakers with dramatic impact, reports with hollers and sirens as its soundtrack, grave tomes from BBC stalwarts called up, dragged on air, nobody knowing the scale or scenario. I thought of New York, my times there. Thanksgiving ’94, a freezing sunny afternoon on the Empire State Building, looking south at the towers, a bitter wind stinging my face as I smiled into a camera lens. A bar on Bleaker Street, The Smiths playing as we sipped Budweisers and Guinness. The Staten Island Ferry, huddled on deck snapping the skyline and the statue of Liberty. Fire now billowing from windows, tiny shapes of panicked workers waving white flags, as stationary drifted on the warm air of a late summer morning – a terrible ticker tape parody.
Work didn’t matter – history unfolding.
I needed to be home. This was the day we’d talk about. The ‘where were you when day’ that every generation gets. Surreal doesn’t quite describe it. Arriving home, seeing the pictures across the news channels, making a cup of tea, surfing the Sky control for variations of coverage. Seeing the towers ablaze, towers I’d visited, a location I related to in some odd way. People, tiny black figures in tiny glinting windows, arms shaking as though waving hello to the world, in reality desperate pleas for an impossible escape. Sitting at home, morbid, compulsive spectator. I watched, listened – different theories, different culprits. Inaccurate data, chaotic reports.
The news that another plane hit the Pentagon – dramatic undertones.
Comparisons to Pearl Harbour. Other planes hijacked – fallen off the radar. Most reports false. Most, but not all. United 93 lost. Went down. Shot down? More tragedy.A rumble and a collapsing tower. No warning – no listing left or right. Just a sudden, rushing concertina. Floor upon floor collapsing on each other in a rushing, churning, rapid descent – lost in grey cloud that spewed up and then out, gathering and enveloping the city. The second tower followed later.
[row][column size=”1/3″]I watched all day and then all night – unable to tear myself from the television. This giant spectacle of terror, captured on a thousand cameras from a multitude of angles. The terrible repercussions this would surely bring. Seeing Bush, hearing rhetoric; frightening vows of blind vengeance. An event, known forevermore as a date of infamy.
I still listen to Simon Mayo – he’s returned to his DJ roots these days. Radio 2’s easy to listen to drivetime show and his Wittertainment film fun with Mark Kermode. It’s fun, trivial stuff that never fails to bring a smile. The decade that proceeded 11/09/01 was, in many ways shaped by the events of that day in New York, Washington and a non-descript field in Pennsylvania.
But then again, as I head home from work with a Mayo no-request Friday on the stereo, ignoring the economy, the riots, the uprisings and the Libyans, I think maybe, perhaps, nothing has changed at all.
It doesn’t take much for the nostalgia to start flowing through my veins. Last night I watched, thanks to the wonders of Sky+, the final instalment of Billy Connolly’s Route 66, the comedian’s trek through America on the iconic highway.
Now, I know he’s not everyone’s pint of heavy but I love him. Always have, always will. From his old appearances on Parky to a recent stand-up masterclass at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff that had everybody laughing to the point of toiletry embarrassment.
As a kid, I even loved Supergran.
Last night Billy entered into Arizona, the Grand Canyon State. I was particularly looking forward to this because the Grand Canyon is a place I visited back in 1995, a backpacking student with Kerouac pretensions, crossing the states in a tired out Toyota. In the show, Billy stood at the edge of the canyon, his long grey hair billowing in the wind, looking out across the vast red-brown landscape. The moment on screen lasted no more than thirty seconds.
“Goodness me,” he said, the understated words belied by the joy in his tone, “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been here, I’ve done it and I’m definitely going to get the t-shirt.”a minute, a sweeping shot out over the rocks, the valleys, the Colorado river.
And with that briefest of commentary, he was back on his trike and heading for California.
Understandable. Frankly, no amount of television footage will ever do justice to the Grand Canyon. Neither, for that matter, will
words – a probable explanation for the pared down nature of Billy’s words on the show, a man who doesn’t usually seem to struggle in that department. It is a place to visit, to see with your own disbelieving eyes.
Like Mr Connolly I too was en route to California, via Vegas. The previous four days had been spent up in Flagstaff, Arizona. the Grand Canyon we ventured.
Arriving at the National Park, greeted by rangers from a Yogi Bear appreciation society, the tall trees of the forest hid the great hole in the ground we’d come to see. If it could be hidden from view by a few seemingly sparse trees then perhaps it wasn’t going to be as spectacular as I had imagined it would be. The truth, of course, is that it is considerably moreso.
Walking through the trees from the car park, the sudden vastness of the canyon opens up before you with such enormity that you genuinely struggle to take it in through the traditional senses – sight having particular difficulty handling the scene. The world opens up before you, a giant gaping gorge in the earth – rough and harsh, reds bleeding into brown. Millions of years of slow evolution, slight erosions and alterations that let you know your miniscule place in the world.
In my cut-off denims and Navajo hat that I honestly thought looked quite cool (I was 21 and knew no better) I stood on the very edge of the canyon, without barrier or protection from a sudden fatal gust and looked out at the scene for more than hour, staring at this giant, monumental work of art, a painting on a canvas, as still and as finely detailed as ever there was to see.
I wasn’t riding a trike; I wasn’t as Billy Connolly joking describes himself, particularly windswept and interesting (just windswept) and my hair was considerably shorter and considerably less grey. But like the Big Yin I found myself at something of a loss for words or indeed for reaction. And so, with a final glance over the shoulder, it was back to the car, another wonder ticked off the list – and a long drive into the night.