Driving across America, one of the characters in Richard Powers’s new novel remarks that the whole country has become a gigantic theme park. The same impression might have been gained from reading American novels, or from going to the movies. From Oklahoma to Mount Rushmore, and from the Devil’s Tower to Zabriskie Point, the activities of being on the road and imagining being on the road feed into one another, as one might expect. More generally, the principle of growth in American fiction has often coincided with the search for new places to mythologise, which is why the Science Fiction of galactic empires is such a typically American form.
Since D.H. Lawrence and the rise of Hollywood we have been accustomed to think of the successful mythologisers as passionate pilgrims in reverse, travelling not from America to Europe but from the East Coast towards the South-West. Such a movement, which takes place in all three novels under review, has its aesthetic as well as its practical dangers. If the historical geography of the US offers almost instant access to the romantic sublime, it also encourages verbosity, hucksterism and raucousness. The myth of the Great American Novel is born of the urge to invent metaphors, characters and themes which will make enough noise to fill up the silence of the great open spaces.
Paul Auster’s Moon Palace is a ‘Western’ novel executed with consummate skill and an unerring feeling for the volume control. His epigraph, from Jules Verne – ‘Nothing can astound an American’ – prepares us for the layers of romantic irony surrounding a remarkably ingenious narrative. The physical location of much of the novel is upper Manhattan, yet Moon Palace is haunted by the landscapes of the West in a way that makes a sharp contrast with the same author’s New York Trilogy. The first paragraph lays hold of us with all the traditional storyteller’s enticements:
It was the summer that men first walked on the moon. I was very young back then ... I wanted to live dangerously, to push myself as far as I could go ... As it turned out, I nearly did not make it ... If not for a girl named Kitty Wu, I probably would have starved to death ... From then on, strange things happened to me ... I found out who my father was. I walked across the desert from Utah to California.
After this, most readers will be ready to cross the desert with Auster’s narrator, but the promised tale is much more introspective and involuted than we are meant to anticipate.
Auster’s narrator is Marco Stanley Fogg. According to his Uncle Victor, these names mean that he has travel in his blood. Victor, his guardian, sends him to Columbia University and bequeaths him a library of 1492 volumes. He also takes the young Marco to a showing of Around the World in 80 Days, whose hero was Phileas Fogg. Victor is a violinist who once worked for the Cleveland Orchestra but now earns a living by playing in dance bands with names such as the Moonlight Moods and the Moon Men. He dies suddenly in Boise, Idaho, where he has had to find work as an encyclopedia salesman.
Marco, who is an illegitimate orphan, soon squanders his inheritance, though he reads every one of his uncle’s books before selling them. Doubtless it is from Victor and his library that he absorbs the Moon lore which gradually pervades the narrative. The opening paragraph suggests, in retrospect, that there is an analogy between the lunar landscapes and those of the western United States – an analogy which (in the form of the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho) is already inscribed on the map of America. As the novel proceeds, the itineraries of Marco and of his long-lost father and grandfather all converge, not in Idaho but in the remote Four Corners area of Arizona and Utah. It is here that the strange motto that the narrator turned up in a Chinese fortune cookie – ‘The sun is the past, the earth is the present, the moon is the future’ – begins to unravel. Sol, the Sun, is also le sol, the earth; the earth, in the American desert, is a lunar wasteland; Marco’s father was called Solomon, and he himself becomes, in a sense, his grandfather’s ghost; and the name of the Chinese restaurant where fortune cookies were served was the Moon Palace.
The fact that the author of the fortune-cookie motto was Nikola Tesla, the discoverer of alternating current, introduces a further set of connections. Tesla was convinced of the existence of extraterrestrials – he believed he had intercepted Martian radio messages at his laboratory – and he was also Marco’s grandfather’s boyhood hero. The three generations of the Barber family (for that is Marco Fogg’s ‘real’ name) have never known one another, but they are linked by their fascination with the American West and with lunar and planetary matters. Solomon Barber is the author of histories of the American wilderness and also of an unpublished novel, Kepler’s Blood, dealing with a race of Selenites living among the Indians of Utah and Arizona. ‘Part Western and part science fiction, the story lurched from one improbability to the next, churning forward with the implacable momentum of a dream’: Kepler’s Blood (which owes something to the Somnium, or dream, of the astronomer Johann Kepler) clearly has at least a distant kinship with Moon Palace. Meanwhile, Marco himself becomes an aficionado of another legendary mental traveller to the Moon, Cyrano de Bergerac.
For a novel in which lunar symbolism plays a principal part, the central matrix of relationships is remarkably patrilinear. Julian Barber, Marco’s grandfather, was an American painter believed to have perished in the course of a lone trek across the desert from Salt Lake City. Barber’s own account is that, bereft of food and abandoned by his guide, he came upon a well-stocked cave in which, for several months, he lived the life of a hermit. Here he painted more than forty masterpieces, leaving them behind when (armed with a new identity) he made his return to civilisation. We are never sure just how much Marco believes of his grandfather’s tale, which concludes with him travelling around the world in a wheelchair after falling down a hill in San Francisco. Marco’s own adventures, however, are just as preposterous. Auster’s stories and stories-within-stories are so insouciantly told that, as Marco says, their very outrageousness is probably their most convincing element.
Once he had sold the last of Uncle Victor’s books, Marco spent several weeks on the verge of starvation in Central Park; after this rite of passage, it seems, he ceases to be a Fogg (his dead mother’s family name) and is ready to stumble upon his grandfather’s and then his father’s identity. But can these identities ever be proved? The erstwhile Julian Barber sends Marco one day to the Brooklyn Museum to study the painting of Moonlight by Barber’s contemporary Ralph Blakelock. Moonlight portrays ‘an American idyll, the world the Indians had inhabited before the white man came to destroy it’. Barber’s desert paintings, if his story is true, must be even closer to the pristine idyll than Blakelock had come. When, in the novel’s final pages, Marco at last sets out on his westward journey there is no doubt what he is searching for: but he soon makes a discovery which puts a dead stop to his hopes. Thanks to the creation of Lake Powell, the whole area described by his grandfather is now under water. Disillusioned, he starts out on foot for California.
Moon Palace is the work of an immensely gifted young novelist. The ending, after so much exuberant invention, is distinctly downbeat, but one wonders if it is really the end. Auster’s earlier New York Trilogy suggests a propensity for larger structures even though its different parts are held together by thematic rather than narrative links. In the present book Marco’s story peters out with the breakdown of his relationship with the Chinese girl who rescued him from Central Park, the supposed submergence of Julian Barber’s paintings, and the perfunctorily-described walk across the desert. Finally Marco is on the Pacific coast, watching the Moon rise over Laguna Beach, and enough loose ends remain (especially matrilineal ones) to suggest a possible sequel, whether it would take him from the Earth to the Moon, or (in his grandfather’s footsteps) around the world. Wherever his next novel goes, Paul Auster can expect an avid following.
Richard Powers, as readers of Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance will know, is another young novelist full of ambition and ideas. What Prisoner’s Dilemma sadly lacks, however, is Auster’s stylistic restraint and mastery of pace. Powers’s prose bristles with verbal japes, hair-raising alliterations, manic allusiveness (the phrase ‘a persistent grass-knollist’ is the novel’s one reference to the Kennedy assassination) and out-of-control metaphors. The author overwrites to such a degree that he gives the impression of being deeply insecure about the power of his words. What I found perhaps the novel’s best joke – a character born in ‘one of those Oak Hill Park Forest Elm Grove places’, in other words, a Chicago suburb – is spoilt by Powers’s inability to leave well alone: he has no less than three shots at it.
Admittedly, the frenetic verbal texture of Prisoner’s Dilemma reflects the nervous, hyped-up private language of the family of six (a mother, a father and four overgrown teenagers) portrayed here. There is a clear continuity between narrative and dialogue, as well as some hints that the novel may have an autobiographical basis. Eddie Hobson, the father, is the central figure. He is a sick and disillusioned ex-history teacher who is nursing some terrible secret hidden from, but endlessly guessed at by, the rest of his family. Eddie is, moreover, a fantasist whose whole life appears to be devoted to the diaries and tapes recording his imaginative creation, ‘Hobstown’, which again his family is not allowed to see. Just what is Pop up to – and do the kids really want to know? All is finally revealed, despite endless prevaricating but we are left uncertain as to whether the waiting was justified.
Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance was a historical fantasy in which very ordinary characters were caught up in some major events of the 1914-18 War, notably the German invasion of Belgium and the episode of Henry Ford’s ‘Peace Ship’. Prisoner’s Dilemma brings a similar approach to some of the events of 1939-45. Here Walt Disney is made to play the part of Henry Ford, the simple American businessman launching into a grandiose attempt at world salvation. Chronologically, the story begins at the 1939 World’s Fair, with its ‘Futurama’ exhibit (showing the world as it was meant to be in 1960) and the Westinghouse Time Capsule which was buried in the earth, to be opened in the year 6939. Bud Middleton, the juvenile lead in a film advertising the World’s Fair, became the teenage Pop Hobson’s hero. Eventually Hobson fantasises that he had landed the Bud Middleton part in an unfinished Disney spectacular, You are the War, made in the middle of World War Two and introducing Mickey Mouse as the teenager’s guide to the dazzling, high-tech world of a peaceful future. People could be persuaded to stop killing one another, so Walt Disney is supposed to have thought, by being made to revisit ‘Futurama’.
The real Walt Disney, Powers implies, restricted his contribution to the war effort to run-of-the-mill propaganda cartoons. Certainly he never filmed in De Kalb, Illinois, the site of ‘Hobstown’, which also happens to be the place where they invented barbed wire; De Kalb is the Hobson family’s home town. Eddie Hobson’s actual war, as his children discover, was spent as an undistinguished aircraft mechanic servicing B-29s at their home bases in Texas and other South-Western states. The clue to the extravagant ‘Hobstown’ fantasy turns out to lie in his posting, in July 1945, to a back-of-beyond desert airbase somewhere in the wilds of New Mexico.
Thirty years later, Eddie is dying of an inoperable cancer. Refusing hospital treatment, he walks out on his family without explanation and heads for the South-West. His younger son follows his trail and eventually reaches the Los Alamos National Museum, the National Atomic Museum near Albuquerque, and the smaller nuclear exhibit at White Sands National Monument close to the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was tested. Pop, who had witnessed the explosion, has apparently gone back to die at the missile-range-turned-theme-park which had served as his real-life Futurama. Prisoner’s Dilemma is an intricate, wide-ranging tapestry drawing on the weightiest of historical themes; it is only a pity that its attempt to remythologise the most portentous of modern American events is so heavy-handed.
Though the dénouement of John Irving’s new novel also involves a westward journey – this time to Phoenix, Arizona – the main narrative, as in his earlier books, is set in a small town in New Hampshire. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, the Gravesend Academy, where the narrator’s stepfather is a faculty member, closely resembles the Steering School which was the main location of Irving’s best-known novel The World according to Garp. Once again, this is a narrative of over-protected (though also star-crossed and mysteriously illegitimate) prep-school kids. T.S. Garp was eventually murdered in the wrestling gym at the Steering School, but in the new novel both Owen Meany and his friend John Wheelwright eventually leave New Hampshire for good. We are in the mid-Sixties, and Owen is killed on Army service (though in Arizona, not in Vietnam as he had anticipated), while Wheelwright goes to rebuild his life in Canada.
Wheelwright, the narrator, is not exactly an expatriate draft-dodger: Owen has won him conclusive exemption from the military by the simple expedient of chopping off his index finger in the Meanys’ stone-cutting shop. Nevertheless, by the time he comes to tell his story, Wheelwright is an embittered Anglican convert burdened by a conviction of the irredeemable moral rottenness of the United States. He has watched his childhood friend grow into a fanatic and potential saint as a result of having foreseen the date and manner of his death in a series of dreams. Wheelwright is our witness that what Owen had prophesied came to pass, but as narrator he is also a misanthropic nonentity whose social and political diatribes pad out an alarming proportion of the novel’s 543 pages.
John Irving, reputedly the new Dickens of American fiction, is quoted in one of the book-length studies of his work that have already appeared as saying, for the benefit of the American public, that ‘good reading is this country’s salvation.’ John Wheelwright, however, does not think so (though he offers generous recommendations of the works of two or three Canadian novelists), but then, A Prayer for Owen Meany does not provide it. The novel is remarkably sloppy, both in its prose style and its linguistic conception.
‘Why aren’t Americans as disgusted by themselves – as fed up with themselves – as everyone else?’ whines our narrator at one point. The ambiguity of this is startling – what are publishers’ editors for? Wheelwright has no illusions about the pristine Western United States, but he does find on his vacations in Georgian Bay, Ontario that he can ‘imagine North America as it was – before the United States began the murderous deceptions and the unthinking carelessness that have all but spoiled it!’ ‘Spoiled’, here, is the word which betrays much of what is wrong with A Prayer for Owen Meany. Every page is peppered with anxious, over-insistent italics and capital letters. Owen Meany himself is a five-foot dwarf introduced on the first page as having a ‘wrecked voice’: apparently he speaks in a steady high-pitched scream like a murdered mouse. Irving is powerless to make us imaginatively hear Owen’s voice, so he prints every one of his hero’s spoken and written utterances throughout the book (and there are an awful lot of them) in upper case. At least we know we’re being shouted at.
As for what happens in the novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a mass of mundane detail interspersed with juvenile melodrama and sophomorish pranks. Major episodes hang on such matters as pre-adolescent erections, pant wettings, breast nuzzlings (five-foot Owen is always getting crushed against his friends’ mothers’ bosoms) and what are endearingly known as doink-pullings. Wheel-wright’s cousin Hester (Hester the Molester) is the champion doink-puller. After Owen Meany’s death she becomes a millionaire rock star, and the narrator observes with his customary charity that ‘out of Owen’s suffering, and her own, Hester has made a mindless muddle of sex and protest, which young girls who have never suffered feel that they can “relate to”.’ There is, after all, something to be said for a mindless muddle which you can actually feel you can relate to.