Fantastic Reviews - Related Interest Book Review
Oracle Night USA cover Oracle Night by Paul Auster

Henry Holt & Company, Inc - 2003
USA hardcover - 256 pages

Book reviewed January 2004

Rating: 4/10  (Not Recommended, But Not Bad)

Review by Aaron Hughes

         The boundary between mainstream fiction and fantasy is becoming hopelessly blurred.  Many fantasy writers are setting their work in the modern day, often with understated fantastic elements.  At the same time, more and more mainstream writers blend in a touch of the fantastic.  Paul Auster's new novel Oracle Night, for instance, is set in the present day, yet events occur that shouldn't be possible in the real world.  Whether you label the book as fantasy depends on your reading of these events.  By my interpretation, described below, the book is not truly fantasy, but you may read it differently.  In any event, the novel is of interest to fantasy readers as an example of the continuing cross-pollination of mainstream fiction and fantasy.

The primary protagonist of Oracle Night is Sidney Orr, an up-and-coming literary novelist who is recovering from a near-fatal illness.  Strolling around his Brooklyn neighborhood one day, he wanders into a stationery store run by a peculiar gentleman named M.R. Chang, and picks up a blue notebook from Portugal.  Later he spots an identical blue notebook in the home of a friend who is an extremely successful writer.  Sidney finds that the notebook greatly stimulates his imagination, and for the first time since he became sick he begins to write a new novel, furiously scribbling a rough draft on the pages of his blue notebook.  The novel expresses Sidney's fascination, probably owing to his recent brush with death, with the idea of starting life over.  At the same time, Sidney is oblivious to the obvious dissatisfaction of his wife Grace with their marriage, and we wonder if she will soon decide to start her own life over.

Sidney's novel follows Nick Bowen, a man who narrowly escapes being crushed to death by a falling gargoyle and is inspired by the incident to suddenly abandon his life and start anew, leaving his New York home without even stopping to telephone his wife.  (This premise is drawn from a passage in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon)  Bowen was formerly an editor, and by chance as he starts his new life, he has with him a manuscript of a novel called Oracle Night, about a soldier who is blinded in World War I and simultaneously becomes clairvoyant.

The Oracle Night manuscript that Bowen carries is thus a story within a story within a story.  But it doesn't stop there.  I suspect that the entire narrative is another story within an implied story.

Auster seems to have deliberately structured Sidney Orr's story so as to prevent us from suspending our disbelief.  The tale is peppered with rambling footnotes giving background information that plainly belongs woven into the narrative.  Sometimes Sidney recalls an implausible depth of detail, repeating huge stretches of naked dialogue until we lose track of who is speaking, and even remembering the name of a cab driver (as does one of the characters in his own book), then at other times he professes not to remember very important facts.

Add to these stylistic incongruities a host of unexplained coincidences and various other implied and overt suggestions that Sidney's life is really a dream.  The clearest examples are when Grace looks into Sidney's study while he is writing but cannot see him, then later when she has a dream that follows the plot of the novel he is writing.  One could view such story elements as touches of surrealist fantasy, but I am left with the impression that Sidney's story is a rough draft, an outline of a tale being scribbled into one of those blue notebooks.  Who is writing all this, and where did he get his blue notebook?  This is the implied story surrounding the story within a story within a story.

For the first half of this book, the layers of story-within-story and the parallels between layers are all quite interesting, although they make it difficult to be emotionally connected to any particular characters.  Auster includes some effective ironies, such as M.R. Chang's great pride in his stationery store and his impassioned speech about the importance of the written word, when it is later hinted that he burned books during China's Cultural Revolution.  More importantly, the different levels of story illustrate Auster's themes about the tenuousness of reality.  Are we all like the characters in the various levels of this book, trapped in a limited reality, oblivious to the Larger Forces at work outside of what we can perceive?

Even though I found this interesting, for me Oracle Night is not a success for two reasons.  One is Auster's clumsy, wordy prose.  I can swallow a dose of unnecessarily wordy writing when the author at least uses the extra words to poetic effect, but Auster does not.  For me, most of his attempts at elegant language fall flat, with the final paragraph of the book ending matters on a particularly clunky note (and I collect old pulp magazines, so I've read clunky).

To isolate one of many examples, here is a character in Sidney's book unlocking a padlocked door:

No handle or knob is visible, but there's a padlock on the right side at about chest level.  Ed takes a key from his pocket and inserts it into the plug at the bottom of the casing.  Once the spring mechanism is released and the padlock is in his hand, he flicks away the latch with his thumb and slides the freed end of the shackle back through the eye of the hasp.  It's a smooth and practiced gesture, Nick realizes, surely the product of countless visits to this dank, subterranean hideout over the years.

Why does it take so much description to unlock a door?  The fellow's skill with the lock is supposed tell us that he visits this place often, but how hard is it really to open a padlock?  Does his facility at this tell us anything more than we get from the single word "practiced"?  Could it be that Auster just relishes using words like "hasp" and "shackle"?  There is nothing wrong with these words, of course, when the story calls for them.  It is only when the author goes far out of his way to insert them needlessly that they become pretentious.

Ironically, Auster is often held up as a master of "spare" or "economical" prose.  This reputation is most undeserved, as B.R. Myers demonstrates at length in A Reader's Manifesto, his delightful critique of modern fiction.  To my biased view, this is another case of a writer receiving glowing praise from mainstream reviewers, when much better authors in the science fiction and fantasy fields are ignored (at least until, like Jonathan Lethem or Neal Stephenson, their publishers reposition them as mainstream authors).

My other problem with this novel is that the second half fulfills none of the book's early promise.  Sidney writes the Nick Bowen story within a story into a corner, and just gives up.  (Instead of finishing this interesting story, Sidney switches to outlining a time travel screenplay, with the apparent goal of creating the worst time travel story ever written.)  After the first half of Oracle Night focused so heavily on how the lives of Sidney Orr and Nick Bowen and the blind soldier in Bowen's Oracle Night manuscript all intertwine, what a disappointment it is for Bowen and the blind soldier to disappear entirely from the second half of the book.  It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, like Sidney, Auster wrote himself into a corner, but unlike Sidney, he was precluded by contract from giving up.  With no choice but to soldier on, Auster occupies the second half of his book with melodramatic twists - evidence pops up that Grace is cheating on Sidney, a run-in with the son of their writer friend turns violent, etc. - all of which struck me as entirely random and pointless.

         Then again, the awkward turns in the second half of the story may be deliberate.  Perhaps it is not Auster who doesn't know where to go with this tale, but whoever is writing this rough draft of Sidney's story in his or her blue notebook.  If so, Oracle Night is an elaborate and unwelcome joke on the reader.  It's not as if there is such a shortage of books by mediocre writers that we needed Auster to set out deliberately to fill the void.
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Copyright 2004 Aaron Hughes
Oracle Night by Paul Auster
Faber and Faber - 2004
UK hardcover - 304 pages
Oracle Night UK cover

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Links to websites about Oracle Night & Paul Auster:
Paul Auster - Definitive Website
Oracle Night - Paul Auster - New York Book Review
The Atlantic | A Reader's Manifesto | B.R. Myers

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

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