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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Oracle Night
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on 10 September 2017
Great book, Auster at his best.
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VINE VOICEon 31 August 2007
No-one does the self-referential novelist's novel quite as well as Paul Auster. From his quintessential 1980s New York Trilogy up to 2002's The Book of Illusions, his world has always been a mixture of stark urban realism and metaphysical ambiguity. Complex and mythic, pitilessly plotted, these novels nevertheless reveal a deep compassion for the frailties of the creative spirit.

In Oracle Night, Sidney Orr, a novelist recovering from a serious illness, is slowly overtaken by the power of a blank notebook he finds in a Manhattan stationer's. The book shifts his writer's block - but there's a heavy debt to pay. First the store and its owner mysteriously disappear, and then gradually everything in Orr's life is called into question - his marriage, his friendships, his mental health, even the fabric of what he calls reality.

Auster uses the notebook as a device to open closed worlds in his hero's psyche. At first, it seems magical, talismanic. As Orr begins to write, Auster's stories proliferate like nested Chinese boxes. Memories gather, characters reminisce, other texts are referenced. Anecdotal flashbacks sprawl over footnotes which threaten to overwhelm the primary narrative. When Orr writes in his book, he seems to phase out of normal reality; time telescopes itself, the telephone rings silently, his wife looks into his study and sees no-one. He embarks on a promising new novel about a man who begins his life again. He dashes off a screenplay idea for a Hollywood studio.

But just as Orr is celebrating the return of his powers, the rug is pulled from under him. The wife he worships drifts away as unresolved issues from their past threaten to overwhelm their future. His best friend and mentor John Trause - a character whose life seems partly based on Auster's own - may not be all he seems. The mysterious shopkeeper reappears in a new, darker guise. Portents and premonitions circle like vultures. Worst of all, Orr's promising new novel hits a brick wall. Has his golden renaissance been illusory?

Oracle Night is in part a ghost story - but the ghosts are not the ordinary kind. They're the elusive creatures of a haunted city, the friends and family Orr only thinks he knows, all of them driven by the weirdly independent power of his own storytelling. Auster has an almost religious respect for the power of the written word, but it's a double-edged sword. He believes in the capacity of fiction to curse and destroy as well as to ennoble and redeem, and the lives - real and fictional - within this book shimmer with multiple possibilities while the writer suffers the agonies of the quasi-divine. Can the words a man writes really influence his flesh-and-blood future, Auster asks, or does a storyteller operate outside normal reality? Is it possible to remember your own future? Do books carry prophecies their creators know nothing about?

In the novel's last few pages the multiple storylines coalesce into a single alchemical climax, a materialised reality which not all the characters can survive. Auster claims he wrote the book "in a trance" and no matter how much detail it borrows from reality, the surreal logic of this disturbing novel mimics the idiom of a dream.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 30 September 2017
Auster can be patchy but Oracle Night is one of the high points. Perhaps my favourite book of his outside the New York Trilogy. It's about a recovering writer who revivifies his ability to work by buying a particular notebook, in which he writes a story of a man reading a story called Oracle night and behaving in a way inspired by another story that the recovering writer admires. The story is even told in part through some extensive footnotes. Anyone who's read Auster before will know this is relatively unsurprising for an Auster book - if you're new to him, it's doesn't come off on the page nearly as confusing as it sounds. Indeed as it all crystallises towards the final quarter of the book, things become quite simple. Despite it's teasing and brilliant meta-fictional devices, this is really just a novel about a mildly troubled marriage, about love and devotion and trust in a marriage. It's of a perfect length, perfect depth, and is enchantingly brilliant.
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on 5 July 2017
I would stress that the narrative is excelent but it is the only things that keeps you going in this book. There are no chapters and at times there are so many footnotes, that it distracts from the story. It feels unfinished. There is the potential of a thriiling novel here but I get the impression that the author gave up half way through.

My main frustration is that many of the plots lead nowhere and there are too many unanswered questions. The character development is excellent and the story really builds very well, but just as you are awaiting the final climax, it just dissapates into an unsatisfactory mess and you feel conned. This is the first Auster i have read ( i was very impressed by him during a BBC Interview). I will try another - possibly leviathan. I hope it offers a better return on my time.
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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."
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on 21 October 2006
I like stories about writers doing writerly things because even though I know the writer is a character, you get to see the author writing the character who's a writer and is writing, and so gain an insight into that particular author's writing process. You know what I mean. "Oracle Night" is about a writer just like "City of Glass" is about a writer and like that book, "Oracle Night" is a pretty darn good yarn.

The story switches from the story of the main character as he recovers from his near-fatal accident and tells us about his world, and the book that he's writing which is an extrapolation of an incident that took place in Dashiel Hammett's novel "The Maltese Falcon". Both stories are compelling but about halfway through the book, the narrator and main character Sidney Orr, decides to drop the novel he's writing as he's hit a wall in the plot (just like in real life) and his life becomes the focus of the rest of the book. Some people didn't like the way Orr's novel broke off and was never picked up again but I think the way he ends it is symbolic of the way the rest of the story plays out and is a good choice by Auster.

We get a more in depth look at Orr's world, about his wife Grace, about his friend the famous writer John Trause who's dying, and about other characters Orr meets, Chang the stationary shop owner and Trause's junkie son Jacob. Orr makes up stories for them, giving Chang a brutal past of book burning and beatings as he imagines Chang being a part of Mao's China and playing a role in the "cultural revolution" of China. His wife doesn't tell him about some time she spent in Portugal with her lifelong family friend John Trause and when she disappears for a day he makes up a back story for her and torments himself with imagined lovers and secrets he will never know. Basically Auster is writing about a writer but in a very convincing way, showing that when a writer isn't writing he's still writing with his mind stories that he will forget soon but can't stop imagining because of his literary inclinations.

There isn't really a plot, the story tends to meander like the writings of Orr in his blue notebook (in "City of Glass" Quinn wrote in a red notebook, what is it with Auster and these coloured notebooks?) but it's never dull and I was always interested in what Orr was doing whether he was writing his novel which doesn't work out or simply walking the streets of Brooklyn writing stories in the air and forgetting them the minute he goes back home. It's a clever, interesting tale of love, the love of writing, the love of friendship, the love between man and wife, and you see the love Auster has of writing too throughout this book, the writing never feeling forced but natural like a speaking voice. One of his better ones for sure, recommended reading!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 August 2013
This 2003 novel by Paul Auster is another absorbing read from a master storyteller, full of Auster's infectious prose and (even at only around 200 pages) levels of narrative invention that most modern novelists can only dream about. Once again, Auster touches on his common themes of chance, coincidence, identity, dreams, unrealised ambition, unspoken truths and human frailty as he tells his story of 30-something author Sidney Orr and his attempts to rediscover his writing inspiration following the acquisition of a mysterious blue note-book from a New York stationery store. As he has done before, Auster makes particularly good use of the 'novel within a novel' concept, as Sidney embarks upon a new book (indeed this 'embedded' novel is arguably even more compelling than Auster's 'outer' narrative). Auster also creates compelling characters in Sidney's wife, Grace, and good friend John Trause and it is this triumvirate whose inter-relationships provide the basis for the major narrative strands in Oracle Night.

My only reason for rating Oracle Night as a four, rather than five, star read is that I feel that Auster probably does not do justice to the many ideas contained within (particularly that relating to his 'novel within a novel'), and that his conclusion, whilst narratively believable, is something of a cop-out given the compelling nature of what has gone before. I consider other of Auster's short(er) novels (for example The Music Of Chance and Timbuktu) provide a more complete, satisfying read, whilst other longer novels such as Moon Palace, The Book Of Illusions and Mr Vertigo are also superior to Oracle Night. Nevertheless, Oracle Night is still well worth reading (and could easily be devoured in a single sitting).
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on 14 October 2005
Sidney Orr is a 34-year old writer in New York who is recovering from a near fatal illness. As part of his rehabilitation he roams the streets of his neighbourhood, where one day he finds the Paper Palace, a stationary shop where he buys a blue Portuguese notebook from the Chinese owner. When he gets home he immediately starts to write a story about a man who one day walks out on his wife and disappears without a trace. But after a while he gets stuck and does not know how to continue. In the meantime he finds out that his wife is pregnant, his house is broken into, he endangers his marriage when he encounters the Chinese shopowner Mr Chang again, his best friend, the renowned author John Trause, has health problems and the son of this best friend ends up in a rehab centre. And all that in the timespan of nine days. As Sidney tries to cope with all this he needs his blue notebook to make sense of all the developments.
This book gets mixed reviews on Amazon and I see the problems that some people have with the two relatively unfinished story lines. Paul Auster can definitely write: even though the story as such was not terribly interesting to me (except for the story within the story of the guy who disappears without a trace), the book is so well-written that I was simply forced to read on.
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on 11 March 2015
It appears that I am not the only reader who finds Paul Auster's work like some kind of drug. You pick up one of his books and you cannot put it down. This was just such a delightful book. A fascinating story, the moment he steps inside that stationery shop you already feel the story start to crackle with promise. It's hard to go into great detail without spoiling the fun but let's just say he strikes the perfect balance, he is experimental with footnotes etc but to not to the point of self indulgence. Another wonderful and unpredictable story to get lost in.
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on 15 December 2012
This was and remains the only Paul Auster book I have read. The narrative style is good- you are drawn in by the feel of the voice and that is why you read on. However, this book seems like it hasn't been read by an editor. It flags up important things which are never resolved in the plot, it swings from one thing to another and has the feel of a story put together by a stoned student. You feel short-changed and I am genuinely surprised it was published without being revised. Two stars because he has a nice style.
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