Though Paul Auster clearly has great affection for the mystery story, this has manifested itself quite obliquely over the years. Squeeze Play (1982), his debut novel (as by ‘Paul Benjamin’) is a conventional if proficient thriller that more than passes the time. His more celebrated New York Trilogy (1987) takes a post-modern view of many of the genre’s motifs and tropes and is beloved by many but also deplored by others for allegedly dissing the mystery as a form. Oracle Night is another of his sideways nods and can be seen as an hommage of sorts to Dashiell Hammett …
The following review is offered as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at her Pattinase blog.
“A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned … He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand …” – from The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The premise of Auster’s novel derives its essence from the long and now celebrated anecdote found in Hammett’s magisterial 1930 classic, The Maltese Falcon. Dismissed by many at the time as either a strange irrelevance or mere padding, the ‘Flitcraft’ episode is now seen by most as being critical to understanding Hammett’s worldview. In the seventh chapter of Falcon, Sam Spade relates to femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy the story Flitcraft, a successful businessman and happily married father of two young boys who one lunchtime is nearly killed by a falling beam. The accident plunges the man suddenly and starkly into an existential crisis so he walks away from his life and starts again, immediately and permanently severing all ties to his past. Auster is fascinated by the ideas of chance and fate as competing forces and by the way that the fictional and the real can become intertwined.
“The world is governed by chance. Randomness stalks us every day of our lives, and those lives can be taken from us at any moment – for no reason at all”
Auster’s protagonist is the uncertainly named Sidney Orr, a novelist and author proxy, recovering from a long, nearly fatal illness that left him unable to work. One day in 1982 he is challenged by fellow writer John Trause to start again and use the Flitcraft anecdote as the basis for a new novel. By coincidence Orr also happens to find a new stationary shops run by the mysterious MR Chang, who sells him a blue Portuguese-made notebook that inspires him immediately write a long tale that mirrors Flitcraft. In typical Auster fashion, within this tale there is another, revolving around the discovery of a long-lost manuscript entitled ‘Oracle Night’, about a man ultimately destroyed by his Cassandra-like powers to divine the future.
“That’s how it works. As long as you’re dreaming there is always a way out”
But Orr in the ‘real’ world also has problems on the home front – his wife Grace has secrets she won’t share and one day goes missing, the same day that their flat is burgled. Is there a connection? And what is it that Trause knows about Grace that he won’t discuss? And who is this mysterious Chang, whose shop seems to close and open again in different locations literally overnight. Not surprisingly, the fictional hero of Orr’s novel soon gets trapped in a locked room just as the writer’s life also seems to be heading into a series of problems for which he can’t see a way out. Hammett’s parable, with its neat ironic coda, is the springboard for Auster’s tale, which is less of a mystery story than a rumination on the impact of seemingly random events on everyday lives, though by the end there will be extreme violence and several death, both real and fictional. Though set over nine days in 1982 this is very much a post 9/11 novel, speaking to that yearning for stability and permanence in times of change as Orr and his wife are faced with a series of dilemmas and dramatic episodes that could completely change and even end their lives – it is no wonder that this starts to affect the fiction of their dreams and stories.
“… I was already beginning to settle into what I would have to call (for want of a better term) a state of double consciousness
To get the negatives out of the way right now, I found this book to be occasionally infuriating, as with much of Auster output, for a solipsism that only leads to a lack of fulfillment and disappointment in terms of character and especially plot; and for its cheerless, even slightly despairing tone, that doesn’t always seem to have a real reason for being. His Chinese box approach to story-telling, with narratives within narratives, is certainly evidence of this too and won’t be for everyone, though it is hard not to be amused by his inclusion of dozens of footnotes that go on for pages and pages so that, by the time you finish them, you have turn all the way back and try really hard to remember where you were in the other story he was telling. But this is also a very rewarding story from a human standpoint, one with a powerful emotional climax in which the author goes out of his way to provide a sense of real world closure to his narrative, leaving only the fiction in limbo and looking ahead in the lives of his characters and just speculating on what they might have left behind. We really want Sydney and Grace to survive their ordeal and this is not necessarily the way I always feel about Auster’s protagonists. It is one of the author’s most accessible works and I recommend it for anyone thinking of trying him out for the first time.