Review by Violet Yates
I loved this novel. Paul Auster has done it again, with remarkable depth and brilliance. As always, Auster’s ideas are amazing, and make for an entertaining read as well as a study on identity.
Marco Stanley Fogg, or M.S. Fogg, is an orphan who seems to be spending the entire story searching for his identity, mostly, it appears, indirectly. The novel starts out in New York City, when M.S. is finishing up college at Columbia University. He begins by explaining about his relationship with his Uncle Victor, and how Victor had gifted his entire collection of books to M.S. M.S. uses the novels, packed into boxes, as furniture at first. But when his Uncle dies, he slowly begins to dismantle his furniture, and thus his identity, by reading the novels and selling them off as he finishes. Prior to this, he had been dubbed Phileas, a character from Around the World in 80 Days, a movie that Uncle Victor had taken him to see as a child. Upon his uncle’s death, he has no choice but to slough off this identity. There is no one left to M.S. in the entire world, so he allows a financial dilemma to literally consume him until his life is at stake. Then he meets Kitty, and a new identity is formed, that of ‘Kitty’s Twin.’
When M.S. becomes destitute, homeless and sick, it seems as if the end is near. But he is rescued by Kitty and his friend Zimmer. Zimmer brings him home and nurses him back to health. He narrowly escapes being drafted into the army because the doctors think he is crazy. He begins to rally and offers to repay Zimmer for helping him by translating a French manuscript into English. Then he takes a job with Thomas Effing, an elderly, well-to-do gentleman in need of a companion. Effing had to replace his former companion, Pavel Shum, after Pavel was hit by a car, as was M.S.’ mother. Thus M.S. takes on a new identity; he became Pavel’s ghost.
While working for Effing, he learns of how Effing used to be Julian Barber, until Barber faked his own death, became a hermit named Tom, then dubbed himself Thomas Effing. Effing turns out to have a son named Solomon Barber, who in turn is the father of someone else. Solomon had initiated his own search for his identity as a child, for he was also an orphan, just like Kitty and M.S.
This entire story involves people and their attempt to find their identities, to discover who they truly are. This is not just a physical journey, but a spiritual one. Finding one’s place in the world… It’s not just about names but about who we are as human beings, and our place in the universe, about how the world is a large place, but at the same time, we are all related to a certain extent.
I have enjoyed Paul Auster’s novels since college. Although it isn’t an easy, light read, its weight causes the reader to ponder the deeper meaning of life and our place in it. The interconnectedness of the characters in this story shows us how truly small our world really is.