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Moon Palace


Moon Palace Year : 1989

Writer : Paul Auster

Summmer of 1969. Man lands on the Moon. And that's when Fogg choses to start the story of his unbelievable life. Marco Stanley Fogg has never known his father, lost his mother when he was eleven and was raised by his uncle Victor, a failed clarinetist who spent his life on the moon, moving, reading and dreaming. When the time came for M.S. Fogg to move in his own apartment to go to Columbia university in New York, his uncle, who'd just joined a band (incidentally called Moon Men), decided to help him and give him all his books - more than a thousand. Now alone, he found consolation in using the boxes of books as furniture and watching a Chinese restaurant's neon sign shine at night - Moon Palace. Such coincidences seem to accumulate to the point that one may wonder about the very nature of chance as we follow Fogg through a series of events that were to change him forever and make him the (fictitious) writer and main character of this book: the death of his uncle, the meeting of a Chinese girl named Kitty Wu, who happened to be a mirror version of himself, his subsequent lapse into poverty and homelessness (after he left an egg slip through his fingers, he had to go live in Central Park and live off of what people gave him or put in the trash cans), his rescue by Kitty and his friend Zimmer, who then provided him with accommodation and food in his own flat, how he paid him back by translating a hundred pages written in French into English, becoming the caretaker of an 86-year-old man who can't walk and see anymore and turns out to be some kind of older version of himself, which makes sense since we are later to discover that his larger-than-life, moon-like son, Solomon Barber, turns out to be Fogg's father, but Fogg discovers all this a tad to late, for his father dies soon after falling into an open grave right next to his mother's and uncle's tombs. As if this wasn't enough, he and Kitty Wu get separated (she aborted and that egg Fogg refused to let go of) and what he and his father had been searching for - Julian Barber's paintings in an American desert that looks just like the moon - has disappeared under an artificial lake. Alone again, he keeps walking all the way to the Pacific ocean, where, thinking about China, on the other side of the ocean, he finally finds peace. Apparently going west led him east. And that's how he came to be as a writer - for, after all, aren't fictions and dreams the only way to keep that egg that keeps slipping through your fingers from falling - reality, that is?

With its sometimes chronologically confusing narrative, its innummerable happy and unhappy coincidences (but "There's no such thing as coincidences", Julian Barber, aka Thomas Effing, keeps repeating), its set of colorful characters, its foggy first-person narrator, its continuous links between American history and his story, Moon Palace seems to be providing the reader with a postmodern and poetic version of the classic Bildungsroman with strong autobiographical overtones as well as the perfect recipe to make anyone turn into a writer. Throughout this analysis, we shall see how Paul Auster uses his-story, metafiction and synchronicity to make us focus on the very fabric of fiction - the words and the worlds they give birth to.

From Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, i.e. from one symbol of peace to another, M.S. Fogg goes through a series of adventures and misadventures that will, through just as many encounters, enable him to become the very American writer of the book - having failed at making his relationship with Kitty Wu last, finding Julian Barber's paintings and making the most of his relationship with his long-lost father, he will, in one last epiphany, become the artist he was meant to be. For it seems that eveything in the universe contributed and conspired to his fate: didn't everything start when his moon-looking father fell in love with his mother, just like his adult life began in a Columbia University when the first man landed on the moon? Didn't he get his literary culture from a jazzman who travalled around America and whose band was called The Moon Men? Or maybe we could trace his destiny a little further back in time, when Barber, his blind mentor and grand-father, first saw Nikola Tesla, the genius who invented alternating current, at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, an exposition that paid tribute to Columbus' discovery of America? Doesn't this simple fact link him directly to the very birth of his country and to its European origins? It is no chance then that the one who was to become his mentor should have been formed in France in the early XXth century with famous painters of the time, that he should have gone back to America with a Russian expat and that he should have become the self-made man he was by crossing the Moon-like American desert to explore the West and making a fortune out of killing a bunch of bandits like a real cowboy... America, a land of conquests, discoveries and creation, where populations from all around the world (didn't Kitty come from China? And wasn't Fogg himself a Jew?) met, fought and melted, a land whose otherness would make anyone reconsider their conception of time and space, as Fogg and Barber did, was also to become the land of opportunities and missed opportunities for a future artist (Paul Auster clearly puts all the people who create music, paintings and books on the same moon), which, considering the reference to the Egg of Columbia - the one Columbus broke to make it stand on its tip to show what intelligence and creativity meant and why he was the one who discovered America - seemed all too natural. What Fogg finds out is who he is - and, indeed, finding one's identity in a multicultural society where everything seems so alien, including the landscapes, can be a bit of a hassle, but then so is it for anybody, and Fogg's egg finally hatches in its own peculiar way to give him birth. Yet doesn't the egg lead us in another direction here? Let's find out!

The egg, as a symbol of fertility, takes on many different meanings and readings in Paul Auster's novel. One that keeps coming back like some kind of leitmotiv is the egg as something that keeps slipping through Fogg's fingers: in his first apartment, everything falls apart when he lets an egg fall on the floor; his relationship with Kitty Wu ends when she decides to abort, that is to break the egg; and at the end, when everything seems to have come to some kind of obscure and meaningless conclusion, he states that "The egg [his fragile world] was slipping through [his] fingers, and sooner or later it was bound to drop". Could it be that the very definition of a writer - and maybe of any human being in general - is that of someone who is obsessed with the slippery, shifting and changing nature of reality and is constantly trying to fix and fixate it by putting it into words and sounds and images? That explains all the metafictional aspects of the novel and that long chapter that focuses on Fogg's relationship with Effing/Julian Barber: the latter teaches him the essence of writing by putting himself in the position of a reader - he is blind and can't walk, so that Fogg must describe everything to him with the utmost precision and move him around in places he knows but seems to be discovering for the first time, like a newbornbaby. This episode leads to Fogg's discovery of Blakelock's moon painting, which Effing (yes, it means "fucking"!) praises so much: looking at this unimpressive - at first - rendition of barren, moonlit landscape with a bunch of Indians (American history, again) camping there as if the setting had no effect on them, other than some kind selenite serenity, Fogg understands what the essence of writing is: making other people see the world in a different light. And for this, just like Blakelock, you have to be a bit of a lunatic - you have to come from the moon: "Diana, goddess of love and lunacy", as Fogg himself puts it. By the way, doesn't the moon itself look like an egg? Even the word "moon", with its double O, reminds us of the oval ovum! As for Fogg, doesn't his very name include a mix of two words, "fog" and "egg"? And isn't getting rid of all the illusions that constitute his ego's egg and breaking its shell the very purpose of his journey as a dis-orient-ated young man? I don't think there is such a thing as coincidences...

Speaking of coincidences, there appears to be some kind of theory underlying the narrative structure of the whole novel and which, through metafictional devices, becomes part of the story itself - namely, Jung's synchronicity theory. According to that theory, originally developed in collaboration with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who experienced strange phenomena whenever he entered a laboratory (all devices would suddenly stop working properly or break), there are periods in a person's life when meaningful coincidences tend to accumulate and end up giving said person the impression that the universe is consipiring to deliver them some kind of message (if you can read French, I have written a short essay that gives a full account of everything I know - from books AND experience - on the subject, which you can find here). While there is no scientific way to experiment this strange though real phenomenon, since it cannot be methodically and systematically reproduced, it does make for an excellent literary device, especially when one considers the fact that it is indeed one of the most overused artifices as far as storytelling is concerned. Here, Paul Auster has decided to make it a central element of his plot, and not just a convenient way of making plot progress. Hence the close relationship between history and Fogg's personal journey to find himself, hence the series of meaningful, "pregnant" names (Fogg, his lonely father Solomon - Seul au monde? Sole on moon? -, the irony of his family name - a bald Barber! -, his grandfather's new name, Effing, which refers to the very activity that leads to (pro)creation, and so on). Following this path, we may eventually find everything indeed makes sense in one way or another, when put in relation to everything else in the novel, like the O's in "Fogg" and "Moon" that are both holes and wholes, thus showing the ambivalence of the egg symbol in the novel, which has to do with life and death (Julian Barber who legally died in the desert as Julian Barber and then came back as Thomas Effing ; Fogg's metaphorical trespass, several times during the novel, until his final epiphany - and rebirth - after his father's real death). This circular figure also characterizes the whole structure of the story, as Fogg goes from Columbia (a name reminiscent of the French "Colombe" ("dove", in English) and therefore peace) to the Pacific ocean, a place whose name is self-explanatory in this context. Everything thus goes full circle and the reader is constantly encouraged to go in search of new layers of meaning, which, we are warned, could lead to madness. But don't you have to be a lunatic to give everything a meaning and entrust "Diana, goddess of love and lunacy", as Fogg, that foggy character, pens it, with that nonsense existence sometimes seems to be?

The time has now come for us to conclude and close the circle of this analysis in a satisfying way. If I were to make it a tad more metafictional to pay tribute to Paul Auster's writing strategy, I would simply remind you that a proper conclusion will sum up the main points of this more or less general overview of Moon Palace, namely that, as we have seen, Paul Auster has chosen to make his novel a very American novel, expressing in passing his conception of American culture and history, to delve into the depths of postmodern metafiction to turn the whole into some kind of dizzying mise en abîme and use serendipity both as a central subject and a narrative technique so that the novel, in fine, simply gives us the writer's view on writing and what it is that makes a (good) writer - the ability to paint the world with his own words and build up meaning page after page so as to lead the blind and crippled reader to add his own layer of meaning to the whole process at the end. I could also mention the author's particular treatment of such common themes as love, death, otherness and adulthood, as well as his take on the process of spiritual initiation, but that would extend this article to unbearable lengths, leaving no room for you to form your own interpretation of the book. I shall therefore go back to my own personal moon palace and let these words echo in your mind again and again and, who knows, maybe they will give birth to new reflections within the fragile frame of your being out of the fog of everyday life?


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