on 13 April 2005
Summary: a crossword puzzle story in which cryptic clues may give different answers to the 'easy' ones.
Paul Auster writes in a clean, beguiling style, skilfully using his characters to describe and blur their interior and exterior worlds. The language serves up the story in shavings, layers and chunks, as Auster guides you in and around variously interlinked stories.
Sidney Orr, a writer, and principal narrator, is married to Grace, a graphic designer. Grace is for him 'an enchanted being..., a luminous point of contact between desire and the world, the implacable love.' The novel opens by disclosing that Sidney had been sick a long time, and 'when the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk any more, could barely remember who I was supposed to be.' From that moment, we are taken with Sidney through a series of encounters and visions that may be imagined, or may be real. One is never sure, not least because Auster gives only suggestive hints.
The nearness of death, and the accompaniment of illness, concentrates Sidney to try to understand what and whom he loves, and why, and to ask if there is anything that is real other than what he fixes or distorts through his and our shifting perceptions. Auster unsettles the reader by making a person's sense of reality only that - a sense - dependent entirely on the way in which facts are discovered and looked at from angles, like a three-dimensional photograph. The core of the book, if it has one, is discovery of self (or different selves) through the device of writing stories within stories. Auster gives this exploration form through Sidney's writing in a blue notebook, to which he is obsessively devoted. In this, Orr sets out to write a story of another author, Nick Bowen, imagining what inspired yet another, Syliva Maxwell, the writer of a manuscript also called 'Oracle Night'.
More than that is difficult to summarise. The narrative creates an understanding of Sidney's relationship with Grace, her history, party obscure background, and unstable present, captured in the central dilemma of her unexpected pregnancy. Nick Bowen is used as a parallel investigator following his own quest - a fiction in a fiction - and at times, Sidney's other voice.
It is a book with few characters, developed in sequences that could have happened or may be just imagined. The story is one of themes rather than events. They include death and time, and how both alter the appreciation and evaluation of what Sidney and Nick do now and next. When the Bowen character nearly dies, he realises that, '[l]ife could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.' Death, and the apprehension of death, force Bowen and Orr to make choices. They also prompt Sidney, as the narrator of his own and others' lives, to consider the essence of friendship and love. How fragments may be taken and composed to comprise the whole.
Auster writes with another character foremost: thought itself. "Thoughts are real," he said. "Words are real. Everything human is real, and sometimes we know things before they happen, even if we aren't aware of it. We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment. Maybe that is what writing is all about... Not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future." This statement sums up a continual theme of 'Oracle Night'. It is the creative act of writing itself that lives alongside what is written about.
Auster is making his characters speak in the dark about things that are half-lit, as if to illuminate them. He uses writing as the eponymous oracle of the book's title to articulate dreams, make them real, understand continually reinvented past, and to point a torch at the future. Symbolic colours are applied to contrast what is raw and what is pallid. Sidney observes partly horrified, partly exhilarated after one of the violent nosebleeds that is a feature of his chronic illness, 'How red the blood looked against the whiteness of the porcelain sink, I thought. How vividly imagined that colour was, how aesthetically shocking.' His notebook, coolly recording events and Sidney's interpretation of them, is blue. Colour gives mood and heat to the text.
The other predominant theme of the book is time and a person's place in it. As Sidney progresses through the story, he may be going somewhere different in a linear sense, but his insights send back more complete pictures of what was glimpsed of and in the past. To map this for the reader, Auster uses the cipher of a Polish telephone directory. There people are ordered alphabetically, without any other distinction, yet each person with his or her own personal, unique tally of unknown, extraordinary experiences which can only be understood and made part of the observer's appreciation of his own place in the present though writing about them. Sidney, Nick and Paul Auster himself, are our reporters. This is as much about the writer's art as it is part of the immediate detective story that is 'Oracle Night'. The historical references include the Holocaust and President Kennedy's assassination, and Sidney ponders what would have happened if, knowing what we know now, we could travel through time and change events that have affected the storyteller's and the readers' lives.
The book is diverting and enjoyable as it teases, treats and threads the reader through its patterned fabric It is perhaps best summed up as a reading experience by taking a sentence from Grace's account of a dream she tells to Sidney: "[w]e were two kids, exploring a strange house, both of us a little scared, but enjoying ourselves at the same time."