[(review date April 1989) In the following excerpt, Bawer links Moon Palace to the novels that constitute The New York Trilogy in terms of Auster's overarching literary vision.]
Moon Palace, a strange and arresting new novel by Paul Auster, follows a flurry of outré offerings by this prolific American author. Though barely in his forties, Auster is already well known for his writings in a variety of fields--translations of Frenchmen from Mallarmé to Sartre; original poetry, including the collections Unearth (1974) and Wall Writing (1976); a poignant memoir entitled The Invention of Solitude (1982); and the recent novel In the Country of Last Things (1987). Perhaps Auster's best-known productions, however, remain the novels of his New York Trilogy, which received considerable attention--and no small amount of critical acclaim--on their small-press publication in 1985 and 1986. Indeed, though Moon Palace is not a part of the trilogy, its thematic ties to these three novels are very strong, and a brief discussion of them may serve not only to provide some necessary background to Auster's most recent effort but to illuminate the distinctive and ever-developing literary vision that informs all four books.
On one level, the works of the New York Trilogy may be said to fall into a category of which many of us are justifiably suspicious: they're mysteries about Mystery, stories about Storytelling; like many a contemporary writer, Auster is hung up on the meaning of language, the enigma of naming, the philosophy of signification. The identity crisis suffered by Quinn, the mystery novelist-turned-detective who serves as the protagonist of City of Glass, is typical: Quinn (a) writes under the name of William Wilson, (b) finds himself taking on characteristics of his private-eye hero Max Work, and (c) is hired to do detective work because he has been mistaken for a sleuth named (yes) Paul Auster. Quinn's client identifies himself as Peter Stillman, but tells Quinn bluntly: "Peter Stillman is not my real name. So perhaps I am not Peter Stillman at all." Quinn's assignment is more in the line of, say, Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo than of Raymond Chandler: he is asked to shadow a linguistics professor whose obsessive search for mankind's Ur-language has led him to lock his son in a closet.
Ghosts, the second novel of the trilogy, also depicts one man hiring another to follow a third; the story's aggressively abstract nature is reflected in the fact that all its characters are named for colors: White, Black, Blue, and so forth. As for the detective protagonist of the third novel, The Locked Room, he doesn't have a name at all. Since boyhood he has been widely confused with a friend, an unpublished writer named Fanshawe; when Fanshawe suddenly disappears without explanation, the nameless detective takes over Fanshawe's life--wife, son, manuscripts, and all--and for some time thereafter struggles with his (and the wife's) feelings about the maybe-dead, maybe-not-dead writer.
The recurring elements in these novels are striking: detectives search out the truth about some bizarre circumstance or other,...