ORACLE NIGHT (2002) by Paul Auster

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-Oracle-Night-pb 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 Auster-Oracle-hba 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.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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20 Responses to ORACLE NIGHT (2002) by Paul Auster

  1. Sergio – Thanks as ever for a thoughtful, detailed and interesting review. I have to confess that I’ve not tried this one, so I was intrigued at your description of it as a boxes-within-boxes kind of story. And even if it does have some negatives (I think I’d have to be in the right mood for a truly cheerless story) it sounds like an intellectually fascinating book among other things.

    • YThank you – and I hope you take the plunge Margot – my negative comments were to a degree aimed at those who tend not to be too keen on Auster’s approach but if you like his work, then you should grab it!

  2. Colin says:

    I’ve never heard of this either but I like Margot’s description of it as “intellectually fascinating” – it does sound quite cerebral. Frankly, I’m not sure if it’s one I’d go for though; the stories within stories, and those footnotes, sound like they might end up getting on my nerves.

    • Well, you may have a point there and it is definitely a postmodern work though the actual love story between the two protagonists and the relationship with the older writer is handled 100% naturalistically and is the best part of the book either way – having said that, and despite some inevitable (and deliberate) narrative blind alleys, it is all very accessible and not like a big literary game like say Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where the story only exists in the footnotes. It is actually much easier to like than Auster’s more brilliant but emotionally much more remote New York Trilogy in my view …

  3. Todd Mason says:

    Auster is never Too far from crime fiction…at least not in his work with which I’m familiar, beginning with the film version of SMOKE (and its improvisational pendant, BLUE IN THE FACE), which Auster was far more directly engaged with than most writers are allowed to be. I’ll look for this, as homage to Hammett, at least from a talented writer, is always welcome here.

    • Thanks Todd – I’d be really curious to know what you thought. I haven’t seen Smoke or it’s improvised pendant since they came out at the cinema but I remember liking them a lot at the time – I wonder what happened to Wayne Wang ..?

      • Todd Mason says:

        You know, a quick skim online doesn’t say much about what he’s been doing between the very occasional film these days. I hope he and Cora Miao (which in Mandarin probably translates as Cora Cat) are reclining comfortably enough on the money from working on the likes of MAID IN MANHATTAN, since I doubt EAT A BOWL OF TEA money stretched too much farther than allowing the title activity.

        • Did you know that Maid was originally a script by John Hughes? Still, better than Last Holiday, a truly bizarre Queen Latifah remake from a screenplay by JB Priestley!

  4. I’ve found Paul Auster’s work–fiction and non-fiction–to be a bit chilly. He’s obviously a bright guy, but he wants you to know it.

    • Thanks for that George and I think that is probably true – In the case of this book, more so than with The New York Trilogy, i think that you do end up caring for the characters a bit more than usual, suggesting either a mellowing in the author or increasing mushiness in this particular reader …

  5. Kelly says:

    It’s the sign of a well-written review when the negatives convince me that this may be something I would like. In other words, you gave enough specifics that I have a sense of the book, and even with the cautions, it sounds like it might be for me. Thanks for the review.

  6. TracyK says:

    This sounds like it might be too complex for me, but since you recommend it as a good introduction, I may try it. I do have the New York Trilogy, but keep putting it off. I guess I feel intimidated by Auster.

    • Hi TracyK – it’s not that heavy a book and I may have been too vague just not to give away too much of the story in fact. Frankly, I don’t imagine this will be much of a challenge and it is not so far off the beaten track – it does have a solid beginning, middle and end but admittedly lots of side plots and narratives that deliberately tend to not get resolved – but I found the style very accessible – if you don’t like this one I would definitely not bother with New York Trilogy though!

      • TracyK says:

        Thanks for the advice. I did notice that the book is not very long (?), thus it would be an easy one to sample. I do like side plots and narratives.

        • The book is only a little over 200 pages though admittedly this might feel longer as there are no chapters! I would love to know what you make of it – the mystery element is not huge but I think crucial.

  7. Sergio, I’m not familiar with the author and his work but I’ll gladly take your advice and try some of his novels including this particular one, notwithstanding the prospect of reading a tale within a tale that I often find a bit daunting. Thanks for the review, Sergio.

  8. Yvette says:

    I read this years ago and if you had asked me then what it was all about I could not have said. I still can’t say. But I’m happy to read that someone else has read this and gotten something out of it, Sergio. I always say that I like Auster even if mostly don’t know what he’s talking about half the time. And ORACLE NIGHT, for me, was then and is now a conundrum. Regardless, I still like to take on an Auster book simply because he is such an obvious master of the actual craft of writing.
    Does that make any sense? Probably not. :)

    The first Auster book I ever read was THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS. I think I understood that one.
    Maybe.

    • I know exactly what you mean Yvette – with Auster, for me, it seems to be about the ideas that it raises and the emotions that they stir even if they are often bafflement or irritation – if you want 100% plot closure a reader needs to look elsewhere though actually I think this one comes surprisingly close!

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