Austward Ho

Patrick Parrinder

  • Moon Palace by Paul Auster
    Faber, 307 pp, £11.99, April 1989, ISBN 0 571 15404 2
  • Prisoner’s Dilemma by Richard Powers
    Weidenfeld, 348 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 297 79482 5
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
    Bloomsbury, 543 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 7475 0334 6

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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