(Moon Palace is my second favourite novel of all time. I just finished reading it for the third time and I wanted to write an outline of the novel for future reference and to help my own understanding. I hope to write another post exploring why it is so important to me.)
This story of how Marco Stanley Fogg’s life ‘began’ is told in first person; at one point he specifies that he’s writing in 1986, fifteen years after the narrative ends. We don’t learn anything of these intervening years save a single scene; it’s the first twenty-three years of M.S. Fogg’s life we learn about.
M.S. tells his childhood quickly, giving us summaries and a few brief incidents. When his mother is killed in a traffic accident, he is adopted by his Uncle Victor. Uncle Victor is a member of a band called the Moonmen and has a big influence on the young M.S.. He gets him thinking, gets him reading and teaches him that names have a power; they aren’t just co-incidental – the baseball player Glen Hobbie will never make it big, because his name implies amateurism; M.S.’s name itself carries much better significances – the explorers Marco Polo, Stanley Livingstone, Phileas Fogg. M.S. himself goes on to reflect on the initials M.S. which become his name and the idea of his life as a manuscript, a narrative in progress. When he heads to Columbia University, his uncle gives him his collection of 1492 books. The boxes form the furniture of M.S.’s apartment.
M.S. hasn’t finished university when news reaches him of his uncle’s death. Money was always going to be tight, but by the time he’s paid off Victor’s debts, he knows he is living on limited time, that he has to do something or he will not have the money to finish. And yet in an irrational act of quixotism, a kind of bravery or solitude or stubbornness, he decides to do nothing, to see what will happen to him.
His concession to his situation is to sell off his uncle’s books, but he reads each one before he sells it. Since the books were stacked chronologically, the sequence of titles resembles the sequence in which his uncle read them – except that the boxes themselves are not in order – and in doing so, he feels he relives his uncle’s life. (This might seem a small point, but it is the touches like this that are part of the brilliance of the novel for me.)
When he runs out of money, he goes to visit his friend David Zimmer (who, of course, reappears in Auster’s The Book of Illusions). Zimmer has moved on, but he bursts into a breakfast party held by the new tenants. They feed him; he eats ravenously and meets his ‘twin’ – Kitty Wu, who is wearing the same t-shirt as him.
Soon he is kicked out of his apartment. He goes to live in Central Park. He gets sick, holes up in a cave and is on the verge of death when Kitty and Zimmer finally find him. Kitty has been looking for him for some time; she never felt so sorry for anyone in her life, she tells him, than when she met him that one time at breakfast.
He recovers in Zimmer’s apartment for several months and is rejected for the Vietnam draft. Zimmer urges him to go and pursue Kitty; she’s in love with him and she’s waiting for him to make the next move. Kitty and M.S. become lovers, discovering in each other true soulmates.
M.S. needs money; he answers an advertisement and becomes a companion to one Thomas Effing, an elderly bad tempered man who is either blind or pretending to be blind. M.S. moves in to Effing’s house, leaving Zimmer behind. At this point Zimmer disappears from the narrative and M.S.’s life, which seems extraordinary – why didn’t Kitty and M.S. keep up with him, at least? In the only flash-forward, M.S. tells us that the only time he’s seen Zimmer since was four years ago, in 1982, when he saw him, his wife and kids walking down the street and stops and talks to him for twenty minutes.
(We don’t read about this incident in The Book of Illusions; the only link to M.S. we learn about in that novel is that one of Zimmer’s sons – who die soon after in a plane crash – is named Marco. Surely Zimmer would have told M.S.? I don’t think Auster had realised he was going to do this when he wrote Moon Palace; if only he could go back and adjust it.)
After some space devoted to the great love between M.S. and Kitty, Kitty moves out of focus for a chapter as M.S.’s adventures with Thomas Effing come to the fore. I make the mistake of picturing Effing as the Big Lebowski, the one in the wheel-chair, from the Coen brothers’ film, but this is wrong. Both are grumpy and insane, but Effing is a tragic figure as much as a comic one.
M.S. takes Effing for walks, and must describe the world to him, quickly and precisely, noticing all the details he has taken for granted. Then one day Effing declares he is going to die in two months and it’s time to get started on his obituary. Effing tells his life story, a story which parallels and resonates with M.S.’s. Effing was born Julian Barber in a wealthy family. He was a painter and disliked his ‘frigid’ wife. He sets off into the Utah wilderness with the heir of another rich family to paint the unique light. Their guide is unscrupulous and when the young heir falls down a ravine and is fatally injured, the guide refuses to stay with him or to take him back. Effing stays with him as he dies and then wonders what to do.
Fearing his name will be mud because of the death of the heir but perhaps also sensing the opportunity, Effing decides to not return, to stay out there in the wilderness. Just on the point of death, he finds a murdered hermit in a cave. He decides to take over the hermit’s life, and paints his best paintings ever, knowing that no-one will ever see them, painting them only for himself. He learns that the hermit was murdered by a gang of robbers and that the robbers will be back. When they return, he’s waiting for them, killing all three and taking their loot. Rich again, he heads back to civilisation, exiled from everyone he once knew and living under his new identity of ‘Thomas Effing’.
In time, he learns that he actually fathered a son the night before he left for Utah and he observes the man’s life from afar. His son’s name is Solomon Barber and he is a history academic.
His time nearly up, Effing wants to give away the original amount of money he took from the robbers. Despite his bad health, he forces M.S. to take him into the streets where they give away the money. On the last night, it’s pouring with rain but Effing insists on continuing and M.S. realises he is determined to die. Sure enough, he catches pneumonia and holds onto life only until two minutes past midnight on the day he had nominated as his day of death.
Effing leaves M.S. a sum of money and for a time Kitty and M.S. enjoy a blissful, carefree existence living together. M.S., meanwhile, writes to Solomon Barber, who is keen to meet M.S..
Sol realises as soon as he meets M.S. that M.S. is the son he didn’t know he had. While a professor he slept with M.S.’s mother – his nineteen year old student – in the morning they were discovered in bed together and the scandal caused Sol to be dismissed. She went back to her hometown and refused to speak to Sol again. Sol doesn’t tell M.S. any of this, figuring there is lots of time, that the right moment will come. He does, however, move to New York and become friends with M.S. and Kitty.
In the meantime, the bliss of M.S. and Kitty’s love is destroyed. Kitty gets pregnant; she wants an abortion and M.S. desperately wants the baby. M.S. frames it as his mistake, that he was foolish to be upset about her wanting the abortion. When he gives in and she has the abortion, something breaks in his heart. He can’t bear to be with her; he moves in with Sol for a ‘break’. Sol tries to get them back together; Kitty waits for M.S. to return – but he cannot.
(One can only speculate on Paul Auster behind the text here. And as much as I shouldn’t, I will. Perhaps like M.S., as an American liberal, he believes in his head that abortion is a necessary choice, not something to mourn. Yet perhaps he had an experience like M.S. where his heart felt it was a terrible thing and wouldn’t match his head.)
Sol hatches a plan to get M.S. out of his funk. They are going to find the cave in Utah where Effing lived for a time and hid his paintings. On the way, they stop to visit M.S.’s mother’s grave. Sol starts sobbing at the grave and reveals the truth to M.S.. M.S.’s first reaction is anger and Sol blinded by tears stumbles away, straight into an open grave. His back is broken and he spends weeks dying in the hospital, attended by M.S. day and night.
When Sol dies, M.S. rings Kitty; she’s the only one who might understand. She listens, and is sorry for him, but she won’t have him back. She has someone else; she says he nearly killed her and she’s had to harden her heart to survive. (As much as one might understand this, it’s actually only been three months since M.S. moved out; I can’t help thinking that the truest love would have waited longer than that.)
Having lost everyone, M.S. tries to find Effing’s cave. He finally discovers the area was flooded; all he can do is hire a boat and ride over the lake, knowing he is as close as he will get. When he returns, his car with his inheritance has been stolen. With just his wallet in his pocket, he starts walking. He walks all the way to the west coast, and when he gets there he stands in the Pacific Ocean watching the moon rise. And that’s the end of the story.