Paul Auster’s eleventh novel is a soup of fictional plots – at one point we are reading the summary of a novel that the character of a novel that Paul’s first person narrator is writing is reading. Read that sentence ten times, and it still won’t make sense, and it’s not just my bad grammar. Despite the fact that an absentminded reader may need flashcards or diagrams to track what is the "host" story and what is a "sub" story (not least of which reason being some characters appear in multiple fiction levels), Oracle Night is a very readable novel that races to the finish – Auster’s typical pace, from my experience reading Leviathan and Timbuktu, both of which I preferred. His narrator, Syney Orr, is a writer who has been recovering from a long illness, and at the start of the novel is finally feeling well enough to begin writing something himself. His inspiration is a fresh blue notebook bought on a morning walk, and because events spiral out of control from that moment of purchase – the "moment in question" is how he refers to it – we at first may believe that this is going to be a fantasy story about a magical notebook.
Actually, it is a story about how people deal with life changing experiences, such as a debilitating illness or a troubled marriage – people in general, writers in particular, given our narrator’s profession. Everything that happens to Sydney ends up in his "magical" blue notebook, either cloaked in loosely based fiction or written out as deliberate autobiography. We never get to read what Sydney writes; we’re only offered his paraphrasing – in fact, he is the only one to ever read any of what he writes in the blue notebook. Strangely enough, though, what he writes sometimes ends up happening in his real life. And his real life begins to sound like a work of fiction.
Putting aside that Sydney’s life is, of course, a work of fiction, it’s an interesting idea. Of course it can be (has been) argued that all of life is a fiction – our self awareness, self representation, even our own unarticulated memories are constructed. But it is asking us to make quite a leap to suggest that a novel’s events can begin to intrude on its author’s real life, in the almost mystical way they tend to do in this novel. What happens to Sydney, his wife, their close friend, starts to feel unreal, outrageous. By writing his novel in the first person, Auster has given us Sydney’s eyes to look through, and his incredulous reactions to the eerie and bewildering events of his life lend some credibility to them – he is our ambassador, he keeps us onboard. Conversely, Auster has also chosen to write the bulk of his backstory in achingly long footnotes – he never wants us to forget that we are reading a book. When Auster’s Sydney describes being at once in a room at a party and also mentally "in" a story he had written about the same room earlier, we totally get it. Like him, we are simultaneously absorbed in Sydney’s world, and outside it – never being allowed to forget that he is not real, and we are reading him.
So what is the takeaway? In one episode, Sydney writes out the transgressions of a loved one, and then rips the pages out and tears them to pieces – a physical manifestation of forgiveness, of literally obliterating an age old grievance. In another, he feverishly writes a rant about a horrifying news article he read in order to get it off his mind. Is that what writing is for? Exorcising demons? Clearing and organizing thoughts? Exploring? In a way, this novel is about using writing as a tool for staying sane (how apropos for a blogger to consider!) The ending, then, is puzzling one – Sydney’s writings, recorded in the blue notebook, are discarded. He sobs in grief and joy, happy to be alive. He rises unburdened from the bed and walks to the hospital to visit his wife. Writing has served its purpose, but only the act of writing has value: the result of that act, the words on the page, are dangerous, destroyed. Of this act of destruction, says a trusted advisor, a fellow writer; "All you need is a different notebook."
This novel has a bittersweet, but largely positive, ending. All loose ends are tied, but in a satisfyingly not-trite way (anybody know a word for "not-trite?") Paul Auster writes with easy grace, and this writing theme is just one of many that could be discussed. Ideas about marriage, forgiveness, betrayal, and freedom are explored in the host story, echoed in the sub stories. It’s somewhat dense, unnecessarily so, but definitely worth the read. There are so many tacks one could take with this novel – it’s one that begs for a book group, for a re-reading, for a 10 page essay. I’m afraid, however, I’ve bored you long enough, so I’ll give it my rating: it may be soupy, but it’s damn good soup. 4/5 THUMBS UP.
Here is what John Homans of NY Magazine had to say.
Here is Blair Mahoney from The Modern Word.
A British-based Paul Auster website, with some nice pictures of the man. Not a bad looking person, for a shy writer!