[(review date 27 March 1989) In the following review, Birkerts provides an overview of Auster's fiction and evaluation of Moon Palace, which he finds promising but ultimately disappointing.]
Paul Auster has been, until just now, the ghost at the banquet of contemporary American letters. Though unquestionably accomplished (in the last decade he has published a memoir, five novels, several collections of poetry, and a major compendium of modern French poetry, which he edited and partly translated), he has been curiously absent from the debates being waged at the far end of the table. There are reasons for this. For one thing, his work does not fit neatly into the currently active slots. While his prose has tended toward stylistic austerity, it has little in common with the water and wafer fare beloved of the minimalists. In the same way, Auster has narrowly escaped the "postmodernist" tag; for all his concern with the slipperiness of perception and identity, his writing has a solid modernist grounding. He has not given up on the idea that art can discover new meaning from experience.
This has really been the main cause of Auster's marginality: that he has favored the serious and "artistic"--the novel as epistemology--over the democratically accessible. His characters have been embodiments, players in philosophical puzzles (I'm thinking mainly of the three books of his The New York Trilogy), or test cases to be subjected to the pressure of extreme situations; his plots, coolly calculated. But now, quite suddenly, comes a change. Moon Palace, Auster's new novel, breaks the chrysalis of high seriousness and stretches out its colorful wings. And the retrospective gaze alters everything: we see that his career has been in fact a complex progress toward liberation.
Auster first announced himself with the publication of a two-part memoir titled The Invention of Solitude (1982). Section one, "Portrait of an Invisible Man," begins with the author receiving word of his father's death. The prose, as Auster searches himself for his reactions, is remarkably matter-of-fact. Distant. As if the deeper turmoils of life could only be handled with the gloves of intellect. Auster himself is surprised by his response:
I had always imagined that death would numb me, immobilize me with grief. But now that it had happened, I did not shed any tears. I did not feel as though the world had collapsed around me. ... What disturbed me was something else, something unrelated to death or my response to it: the realization that my father had left no traces.
We then partake of the sustained excavation of the life--of the apparent non-life--of a man who was a stranger to himself. A man who hid from all emotion, all responsibility, who donned the proper masks of civility, who confided nothing, gave nothing. "Solitary. But not in the sense of being alone. ... Solitary in the sense of retreat. In the sense of not having to see himself being seen by anyone else."
A coincidental encounter on an airplane (Auster is, throughout...