Oracle Night by Paul Auster

I am not what you would call a “fan” of Paul Auster. I haven’t read most of his books and I only really stumbled upon him (into his books not him personally) by accident in a discount bookstore (at an outlet mall of the expressway of all places). But I do find his work interesting and so have found myself reading his work as I come across it (see here and here for previous reviews).

His most recent novel is Oracel Night. It is always a challenge to describe an Auster plot, but let me give it a shot. Sydney Orr is a writer living in Brooklyn. Still recovering from a mysterious illness, he is trying to put his life back together and begin writing again. Inspired by story out of The Maltese Falcon he begins a novel. Equipped with an oddly compelling Portuguese blue notebook bought in a local stationary store the words pour out onto the page. The story Orr is writing takes over and Orr’s life become relegated to long footnotes. As the tension between this story within a story builds, however, Orr’s writes his fictional character into a dead end and so the notebook is abandoned for a time. “Reality” reasserts itself as a crisis builds in his personal life. Orr is left to sort out the interactions between art and life.

My impression is that this work was viewed as something of a disappointment when it first came out. Critics seem to agree that Auster is plainly talented, even if his subject and style may be a matter of taste, but often wonder if he gets tangled up in his own imagination. I have a very similar feeling. Reading Auster is always interesting, but the books I have read so far lack a certain punch come the conclusion. It as if the promise of his skill, and the seduction of his intricate plots and ideas, raise your expectations to high. If he wraps up the work too neatly it seems cheap or easy. If he lets us hang with a vague or mysterious ending, we feel abandoned; the ending seems anti-climatic or flat.

In an attempt to give you a sense of how this plays out in Oracle Night allow me to quote some of the reviews.

In the New York Times Stacey D’Erasmo uses her review to ponder Auster’s larger career. She captures the intrigue of Auster well:

It’s a kind of seduction to dizzy the reader the way Auster does, layering, intermingling and cross-referencing the many stories until one forgets which is primary and which secondary and who is telling any of them.

She also notes the danger of losing control, or she describes it “the entire whirligig might lift right off the page.” For D’Erasmo what saves Oracle Night is a deep sense of melancholy. The ultimate fear is a fear of losing meaning; the inability to write, to communicate, to bring order to the chaos of the world. This underlying theme redeems the work:

Behind every deft story-within-a-story lies the pungent claustrophobia of a man who fears he will cleverly lock himself into a room with no way out (and there is, of course, a story about a man who has cleverly locked himself into just such a room), where no one can hear you talk. Auster generously tips his hand here. He suggests that the terror of not being heard lies at the heart of writing, and that the artistic impulse generally might be summed up as: Somebody say something; 1 a.m., 2 a.m. — just keep talking. That a man who has produced more than 25 books is willing to convey the visceral ping of that terror is evidence not only of his talent but of his grace.

On the other side is John Freeman. Writing in the San Fransisco Chronicle, Freeman thinks Auster lost the battle with Oracle Night:

Writers who publish a lot sometimes attain a dangerous proficiency: They can duplicate at will what they have done before, only on a lesser scale. John Updike spent the late ’90s in this state; Joyce Carol Oates is smack in the middle of it right now. With “Oracle Night,” his slender new novel, Paul Auster sails blithely into his own dangerous proficiency, a move all the more alarming because it plays directly into the themes that have obsessed him, from the potential meaningless of art and existence to the way artists sometimes sacrifice credibility for a paycheck.

For Freeman the ground covered is old ground and the usually reliable illusionist Auster lets to many tricks show through:

But what really grates about “Oracle Night” is not this novelistic chest- beating, or even the repetition of themes Auster has already thoroughly explored, but the slipshod way in which Auster brings them to the foreground. Whenever he gets the chance in “Oracle Night,” Auster explains his book to us . . . We come to his books expecting illusions, not a behind-the-scenes look into how they are pulled off. “Oracle Night,” while it has its high points, unfortunately boils down to an artist tutorial. Auster should go back to being an artist.

Somewhere in the middle is John Homans in New York Magazine. Homans sees the danger of Auster’s subject and style:

If Brooklyn, with its cadres of hyperintellectual bourgeois, has replaced the Upper West Side, Paul Auster is something like its Woody Allen. His once-a-year procession of literary entertainments tend to be both about and for the same smallish, inward-looking culture. Auster’s shtick is making literature out of pulp conventions. And Oracle Night (which, with its textured, waxy blue cover, is itself a captivating object) does not deviate from his oeuvre.

But granting its weakness, Homans notes that Auster’s talent still shines through:

Oracle Night is a sketch rather than a masterwork-it’s far from Auster’s best. The characters are little more than types, as how could they not be, given the tracts of real estate occupied by the twists and tangles of the plot? But it has its power nonetheless, as a story of illness and rebirth, a myth in miniature. It’s a snow globe of a novel.

So what to make of all of this? I think what you think of Oracle Night will depend on how much Auster you have read and how much “payoff” you expect from a story.

If you are interested in writing as a vocation, in the craft and meaning behind telling stories, you might find Oracle Night fascinating and thought provoking in the issues and ideas it explores. On the other hand, if you have read a lot of Auster you might find this latest work repetitive and not as polished. I thought The Book of Illusions was a tighter more compelling story.

I will freely admit that I am not the best at unpacking hidden meanings and the potential symbolism of novels. I enjoy complexity, artfulness, and nuance but I usually like the story to come together in some meaningful way at the end. If you are like me and you need a certain amount of “oomph” at the end as a reward for reading, you might be disappointed in Oracle Night.

I don’t think Auster quite pulled everything together in this one. The original layers of story are compelling and yet are dropped half-way through. There are all sorts of mystic clues that never seem to add up to anything (the mysterious blue notebook, the times Orr’s wife doesn’t see him or he doesn’t hear the phone, the odd stationary store owner). These segments lead the reader to feel that something ominous is building, but in the end we are left with musings on the line between fiction and reality. To me this doesn’t fulfill the promise of the first half of the book. (Perhaps Aaron Hughes is right and this is a surrealist fantasy where we are never sure who is writing the story; where the book itself is the infamous blue notebook.)

But in the end not every book has a to be a blockbuster to be enjoyable. Not bringing any real baggage to my encounter with Auster, I found Oracle Night interesting and enjoyable if a little flat at the end. They may be “literary entertainments” but what’s wrong with that?

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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