Oracle Night by Paul Auster
Henry Holt 2003 384 pp. 23.00
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Sidney Orr has some problems. After being given up for dead, he has finally been released from the hospital, barely able to walk. The protagonist of the story he’s writing is stuck underground in a locked room with only a 1930s Polish telephone book for company. His wife may or may not be having an affair with a man considers both friend and mentor.
Welcome to the world of Paul Auster, the prodigiously prolific creator of mysteries of identity, language, and chance. After last year’s excellent The Book of Illusions, he’s back with his eleventh novel, the tale of a writer trying to recover from an alarmingly serious, unnamed malady while maintaining an unsteady relation with his wife, and trying to bolster an equally wobbly bank account. This episodic tale, with no particular beginning or end, transfixes the reader with its trips up and down the rabbit hole of language.
It’s September 18, 1982. Orr has just been released from the hospital, and returns to life with his wife, Grace, and his friend, the celebrated writer John Trause. To jumpstart his imagination, he he buys a blue notebook in a stationery shop run by a mysterious Chinese fellow. Orr wants to carry out a long-planned writing project he originated with his friend, John, a continuation of the Flitcraft episode from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.
In Hammett’s book, apropos of nothing, Sam Spade relates the tale of Flitcraft, a happily married man almost crushed by a falling beam. The incident unsettles him so that he secretly leaves his wife, moves to another town, and begins life anew. Orr wants to write a story of a modern man who chooses to do the same thing, again for no particular reason.
Fans of the novelist will recognize two key attractions of this episode for Auster, the author. First, the story mimics the famous Nathaniel Hawthorne story about Wakefield, a man who leaves his wife without warning. Auster has a penchant for returning again and again to themes articulated by the great nineteenth-century American writers.
Second, the story of Flitcraft occurs within another story, that of Sam Spade. And, of course, we are reading a novel, Oracle Night, in which a novelist is writing another novel. And, it must also be added, the title refers to another novel written by another writer in the story.
The reader can be forgiven for being confused during the course of Oracle Night, reading pages of footnotes that constitute the backstory of Sidney, Grace, and their friends. Given Sidney’s blindness to others’ motivations in the present, how are we to take these helpful explanations of their pasts? As we elegantly move from an author writing a story about an author writing a story to a dream his wife has that mimics a story she has never read, “where the heck am I?” would not be inappropriate.
The grand theme that Auster returns to in all of his writing is the problematic relation of imagination to “reality,” the way language shapes our understanding of what we take to be real. Sidney Orr, like all of Auster’s protagonists, is constantly unsettled by events that seem to be chance occurrences, but may themselves be tears in the fabric of a tenuously established reality, revealing the man (steadfastly refusing to call himself Paul Auster) standing behind the curtain.
The metaphysical terror Auster so entertainingly dramatizes is that language doesn’t refer to things, but only to other instances of language. That our very identity, constituted as it is by stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, is all that there is. That an abyss separates us not only from the world, but also ourselves, and that abyss is made out of language.
By the time that Grace reveals her secret to Sidney, and John Trause’s son wreaks havoc on their lives, the reader will be happy to find the story is over, so he can return to page one and begin the tale anew, looking for the clue that will reveal the true nature of The Mystery. I know it’s there somewhere.