Since my personal library holdings recently crossed the 1,000 book threshold, I decided that it might be time to slow down the acquisition of new books and re-read some of the good ones that I haven’t touched in a while.*
I decided to start this re-reading with Paul Auster’s Moon Palace. I vividly remembered the beginning and had (as it turns out) a good grasp on the general story, though I’d forgotten some of the finer details. On the basis of this very positive recollection (and my enjoyment of Paul Auster’s work as a whole) I got it for a friend for Christmas since I thought he’d really enjoy it, too.
And having re-read it, two good things have happened. One, I enjoyed it tremendously this time around as well and, two, I’ll have it fresh in my mind if there is book discussion to be had. I even have Post-it® note flags marking certain sections of the book, two of which I will share here, with some set-up but not too much exposition.
The main character has found employment with a cranky, blind, paraplegic man; he works as his companion, reading to him, pushing his wheelchair around the Upper West Side of Manhattan, etc. One of his tasks is to describe their surroundings as accurately as possible while they walk. At this point in the story, he’s realized how difficult this task is:
Instead of doing it merely to discharge an obligation, I began to consider it as a spiritual exercise, a process of training myself to look at the world as if I were discovering it for the first time. What do you see? And if you see, how do you put it into words? The world enters us through our eyes, but we cannot make sense of it until it descends into our mouths. I began to appreciate how great that distance was, to understand how far a thing must travel in order to get from the one place to the other. In actual terms, it was no more than two or three inches, but considering how many accidents and losses could occur along the way, it might just as well have been a journey from the earth to the moon.
Then there’s a sort of story within a story – a narrative that the protagonist hears from another character. He’s just mentioned that the circumstances of their respective stories are similar, and that he understands the other man better than he perhaps thought he could/would:
… my situation had been far less desperate than his. When a man feels he has come to the end of his rope, it is perfectly natural that he should want to scream. The air bunches in his lungs, and he cannot breathe unless he pushes it out of him, unless he howls it forth with all his strength. Otherwise, he will choke on his own breath, the very sky will smother him.
It’s always gratifying to me to come across words or thoughts in a book that I can truly understand. Both of these bits fit the bill. I have struggled with the inadequacy of words for describing certain things and thought about how our individual perceptions of objects or feelings can never be accurately communicated to another person; we’re only ever talking in approximations since your vision of “robin’s egg blue” is going to be different from what I see in my mind’s eye. Even if we’re both looking at the same exact color swatch, there’s no way to tell that we’re perceiving that color the same way. The same goes for getting the description back out to someone.
It’s frustrating but wonderful at the same time; it’s a bit of semiotics. We’d like to think we understand one another or the people with whom we “click” or consider to be close to us, but on the most fundamental level, we never truly can because words are only signs—broad representations of ideas and thoughts. We can only ever approximate. I think the effort, though, is what forges relationships – how much time and energy we are willing to put into the attempt to bridge that gap.
And the screaming thing? I get it. For me, if often comes down to the choice between a scream or hysterical crying. I usually opt for the latter (suburbia is not hot on primal scream therapy), but the sensation is the same. Yes, the air bunches in my lungs and I feel like I’ll choke on my own breath if I don’t get it the hell out of me.
So. A good book. I might officially be on a Paul Auster kick after this because I can re-read “Book of Illusions”, “Mr. Vertigo” or “The New York Trilogy.” Yippee!
* Mind you, that didn’t stop me from ordering a used copy of “Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon”. The book’s premise is that “television heroine Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, has been an unlikely source of language change. In his book [the author] tells how this unconventional teen challenged linguistic taboos and introduced new words and phrases in nearly every show.” Furthemore, on PBS’s “Do You Speak American?” website, they featured the following excerpt:
Buffy has introduced new slang terms and phrases in nearly every episode, many of them formed in the usual ways, some of them at the crest of new formative tendencies… Besides contributing items to the slang lexicon, slayer slang intensifies current formative practices in slang: it glories in them, certainly, but it also constitutes, by exaggerating them, a critique of those practices. For instance, the writers acknowledge that slang increasingly trades on references to popular culture by shifting proper names into other parts of speech, both verbs and adjectives. Thus Xander asks in Puppet Show (5 May 1997), “Does anyone feel like we’ve been Keyser Sozed?” after the character in The Usual Suspects when he means ‘tricked, manipulated’. Afraid that Halloween will get out of hand, Xander remarks in Halloween (27 October 1997), “Halloween quiet? I figured it would have been a big ole vamp Scareapolooza,” from the alternative rock festival Lollapalooza; similarly he argues in The Wish (8 December 1998), “Look, you wanna do Guiltapalooza, fine, but I’m done with that.”