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.
It’s all about the productivity. That’s what they used to say back in the dark old days of sales repping. It was a good job if you liked that sort thing.
But they were right, those sales managers. It is all about the productivity. And being productive can often be the enemy of the writer. I mean, what’s productive about sitting at a desk, staring at a blank white screen, trying to use some Jedi mind trick or other to make words appear. Or, drifting off to some other magical place – a place where your story or feature or article has already been written and you can while away all that free time contemplating why flammable and inflammable have the same meaning, or why ravel isn’t the opposite of unravel.
You know, the big issues.
It’s not writers block that stops a writer being productive. It’s the sudden, overwhelming urge to alphabetise the books on the shelf, or ensure that the back door is locked or wonder why you can be overwhelmed and underwhelmed but not whelmed. In short, it’s procrastination. Procrastination, as Roy Castle once sang, is what you need.I think.
I’m a procrastinator. A put-off specialist. A wanderer of the mind. Hopefully it makes for some imaginative story-telling from time to time but it also makes for some spectacularly wasted time. The procrastinator – sent from the future to finally get the robotics project underway. As Steven Wright, a man with a quote for all absurdities, once said: I’m such a procrastinator I got a birth-mark when I was eight.
Today, however, was different. Today was a day of productivity. Things – ideas, words, storylines and other such suchness flowed into the brain from whereever they usually reside and flowed right on out again, through the arms, fingers and keyboards and began filling the white screen before my eyes. It’s a wonderful feeling when it happens.
There’s an old saying: I don’t like writing, I like having written. It’s a saying that has, in the past been attributed to all manner of famous writers from Ernest Hemmingway and Dorothy Parker to Robert Louis Stevenson. I don’t share this sentiment. I love writing – truly I love it. However, there are plenty of occasions when love can be something of a struggle. And like any loving relationship you have to work at it.
Some writers are prolific, they wake up, sit at their desk and away they go. I cannot claim to be one of those people. I can wake up, I’m definitely able to do that. I can certainly sit at my desk. As for the away we go part – often it’s more like away with the fairies. Once, whilst writing a short-story for my dissertation I found myself writing out a list of my favourite flavour crisps. My dissertation, for the record, proved to be a personal triumph that I’ve never looked at since but there were some lost hours along the way as my brain fought it’s natural instinct to think about everything other than the task at hand.
Marks & Spencer Beef & Onion came out on top, narrowly edging out Pickled Onion Monster Munch.
So today, as I finished some content writing work and after I’d treated myself to a mince pie (we’re past the 1st December embargo so it’s open season on mince pies) I returned to my seat and started banging the keyboard again – losing myself in a short story that has been lurking within for months, screaming for attention among the detritus of nonsense swimming around in my junkyard of a mind (it’s like the opening of Wall-E in there I’m certain).
So, what’s the moral of this story – or, the point. Maybe it’s a cack-handed way of suggesting that writing is about perseverance, about making sure you remain focused and committed to getting things written. Or, more likely, it’s that I’m on a roll – the words are flowing and I don’t want to waste them.
Oh look, a wasp…