Oracle Night
Paul Auster
Henry Holt, 2003, ISBN 0805073205, 256 Pages, Hardcover $23.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Blair Mahoney

The novel Oracle Night, by Syliva Maxwell, chronicles the strange life of Lemuel Flagg, a man blinded in the First World War and discovered by two French orphans. Back in Britain, Flagg begins to suffer from painful fits – episodes that give him visions of the future. This oracular gift brings him fame and fortune, but on the night before his wedding, he foresees that his fiancée will soon betray him. Overcome with his tragic foreknowledge, he commits suicide.
Maxwell’s book has resonances for the man reading it, New York editor Nick Bowen, who has fled from his life (and his wife) after a near-death experience. Escaping to Kansas City, Bowen eventually finds himself in an underground archive preserving the names of millions of people around the world in the form of telephone directories. He leaves declarations of love for a woman he barely knows, Rosa Leightman, the granddaughter of Sylvia Maxwell. At one point, Bowen lets slip details of his previous life to his new friend and employer, revealing that he knows the prominent novelist John Trause.
As it happens, Sidney Orr, who is furiously scribbling out the story of Nick Bowen and Rosa Leightman in a blue notebook he purchased from a somewhat mysterious Brooklyn stationer, is a good friend of John Trause, who is a longstanding friend of Sidney’s wife, Grace. Sidney even bases his description of Rosa Leightman’s apartment on the actual apartment belonging to Trause, and he gives the physical attributes of Grace to Bowen’s wife Eva, drawing on his real-life experience to populate his fiction. He eventually starts to worry about this novel Oracle Night, though – wondering if he has read it before, if there really was a Sylvia Maxwell, and if he has dredged its plot from subconscious remembrances....

Ever since a man named Quinn received a strange phone call from someone wanting to talk to Paul Auster, the private detective, in the opening lines of City of Glass, the first work of fiction by Paul Auster, the novelist, readers have found themselves on unsteady ontological ground in Auster’s oeuvre. His body of work has grown to become one of the most significant in modern letters, at least on a par with his two good friends and fellow New Yorkers, Don DeLillo and Peter Carey. Each of the three writers has managed to develop their own distinctive voice, even as they range across disparate subject areas and styles of writing. DeLillo skims across the surfaces of the postmodern condition and Carey plays with the grotesque realism of iconic Australian figures.
Auster’s novels hinge on what he once called “the music of chance,” and could perhaps best be described as aleatoric (in its musical sense of the sounds being indeterminate or left to chance). Once an Auster narrative takes off, we are never quite sure where we are heading, although abrupt shifts in direction and unresolved elements are assured. Thus a gambler taking advantage of some easy marks will suddenly find himself losing, forced into servitude to pay off his debt; a man sinking into despair as he mourns the death of his wife and child will embark on a search for a long disappeared silent movie star, uncovering the story of his disappearance; and a man who nearly starves himself to death out of poverty and dejection will be rescued by a beautiful Chinese girl, ending up as the live-in helper to an invalid old man.
The chance event around which Oracle Night revolves is Nick Bowen’s close encounter with a falling gargoyle. Having come so close to meeting an absurd ending, Bowen impulsively leaves his existing life behind him, shocked out of his normal trajectory. Auster’s narrator, Sidney Orr, tells us that the germ of this idea comes from The Maltese Falcon, where Sam Spade relates an anecdote about a man named Flitcraft who, after nearly being crushed by a falling beam, becomes convinced of life’s meaninglessness and leaves his family to go live in another city. In fact, the tale has an origin older than Dashiell Hammett, going back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wakefield.” It’s curious that Auster doesn’t acknowledge the Hawthorne story, as Hawthorne’s writing looms over his work, particularly The New York Trilogy and this, his most recent book. Hawthorne begins his story thus:

In some old magazine or newspaper I recollect a story, told as truth, of a man – let us call him Wakefield – who absented himself for a long time from his wife. The fact, thus abstractedly stated, is not very uncommon, nor – without a proper distinction of circumstances – to be condemned either as naughty or nonsensical. Howbeit, this, though far from the most aggravated, is perhaps the strangest, instance on record, of marital delinquency; and, moreover, as remarkable a freak as may be found in the whole list of human oddities. The wedded couple lived in London. The man, under pretence of going a journey, took lodgings in the next street to his own house, and there, unheard of by his wife or friends, and without the shadow of a reason for such self-banishment, dwelt upwards of twenty years. During that period, he beheld his home every day, and frequently the forlorn Mrs. Wakefield. And after so great a gap in his matrimonial felicity – when his death was reckoned certain, his estate settled, his name dismissed from memory, and his wife, long, long ago, resigned to her autumnal widowhood – he entered the door one evening, quietly, as from a day's absence, and became a loving spouse till death.

This outline is all that I remember. But the incident, though of the purest originality, unexampled, and probably never to be repeated, is one, I think, which appeals to the generous sympathies of mankind. We know, each for himself, that none of us would perpetrate such a folly, yet feel as if some other might. To my own contemplations, at least, it has often recurred, always exciting wonder, but with a sense that the story must be true, and a conception of its hero's character.

Just as Auster writes of Orr who writes of Bowen, so Hammett wrote of Spade who told of Flitcraft. In Hawthorne’s version, the tale has a circular structure, with Wakefield returning to his original life, but Flitcraft and Bowen have no comfortable return, and their stories are open-ended. Note, however, that Hawthorne is telling a story that he has heard from another source, in the same way that Spade and Orr are putting new inflections on an existing narrative. It is this cascading storytelling impulse that is a touchstone of postmodern fiction. And the endless riffs on existing tales, revisiting old stories in new guises, is a key feature of what John Barth characterised as the “literature of exhaustion” way back in 1967.
And yet, as its title suggests, Oracle Night is not so much about looking backward as it is about looking forward. It is about the writing process and the strange compulsion to fill blank pages with words, words that have been always already “used up,” but can still be recombined and replenished in new and wondrous ways. Looking into the future can be a destructive process, as Lemuel Flagg discovers in Auster’s story within a story within a story, and Sidney Orr finds that his future is as absurd and meaningless as that which he allocates to his character. But despite these revelations, the characters continue to tell their stories, and with such a compulsion that one tale is always threatening to overwhelm the other.
This does not mean that the characters or their tales always make sense: like in all of Auster’s fiction, Oracle Night contains characters that occasionally act in incomprehensible ways or discover ruptures in their own reality. At times Orr’s behaviour is positively bizarre, as is that of the peculiar proprietor of The Paper Palace, M.R. Chang. It is here that Orr finds the compelling blue notebook in which he writes his story (readers of Auster will be thinking of his collection of short pieces The Red Notebook here), but the store inexplicably disappears, and when Orr next encounters M.R. Chang he finds him to be somewhat different in demeanour. Similarly, John Trause refuses to stay true to his role as the avuncular older writer.
But is this so surprising? In a peculiarly postmodern way, Auster is a realist, his twisted tales mirroring the randomness and illogicality of everyday life – a life in which arbitrary things happen with frightening immediacy, seemingly “normal” people do unexpected things, and stories started get left unfinished. Although Auster’s stories can be maddening to read at times, and certainly frustrating in their lack of resolution, they are never less than faithful to our experience of the world, and are as “believable” as our struggle to bring meaning to our surroundings.
Oracle Night, by Paul Auster, is just as “unbelievable” as the novel of the same name that is buried within its Chinese box of narratives, and like Sylvia Maxwell’s tale of supernatural foresight, it is overlaid with a sense of tragedy and despair. In this sense it is a paradigmatic post 9-11 New York novel. Auster’s vision has always been apocalyptic (as evident with In the Country of Last Things among other of his works), and his narrators are often subject to, as Lemony Snicket would put it, “a series of unfortunate events.” Now, however, the world has caught up with him, and there is a widespread awareness that absurd acts of destruction can enter our lives without warning. Paul Auster is a novelist of our time, providing a murky window onto the perplexing world that we inhabit.

Blair Mahoney
20 July 2004

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.