Oracle Night is the first Paul Auster novel I’ve read since Leviathan in 1992. Until then, I had read every book. This was not a difficult feat. Auster is supremely readable. In fact, I am afflicted by an unusual inability to stop reading him once a book is begun.
However, in the end, with Leviathan, I felt this was too much. I read it abnormally quickly, devouring each page with less and less concern for what was written on it than for getting beyond that page and to the next page, and the next, to see what was there.
After the last page I was mentally exhausted, nursing a headache. It seems significant that I have no memory of the narrative except for the mental image of a forest to which a character – perhaps the main character – removes himself. The proliferation of anecdotes – or stories within stories – means one can’t see the wood for the trees.
The experience of reading Oracle Night is very similar. It’s almost impossible to put the book down as there are so many compelling stories, one after the other, even though this is a relatively compact novel (240 pages). I’m sure I’ll forget most of the stories, but that isn’t important. Nor is Auster’s distinctly unpretentious prose style important. If you wince at clichés like back in the swing of things and to all intents and purposes that appear on the first half page alone, think of them as stablisers for the roller coaster ride ahead. (Elsewhere, I read that Auster breaks through his writer’s block by typing regardless of the banality of the prose.)
There are two central narratives in Oracle Night – both told by Sidney Orr, a New York writer recovering from an unnamed illness that was expected to kill him. He hadn’t written anything in a year until discovering a blue notebook in a small stationery shop (that isn’t stationary at all in fact. It disappears overnight.) Anyway, the new notebook somehow enables Orr to write a story. Much of Oracle Night is that story.
I don’t want to summarise the plot here as it is characteristically involved and would also detract from the essential element of Auster’s novels. The essential thing is something impossible to convey outside of the narrative itself: the evocation of possibility. At each step in the story – when Orr enters the stationery store to discover the blue notebook, when he returns to his writing den, when he begins to write the story in the blue notebook as if compelled by an occult power, and when, in the story within the story, the character makes a life-changing decision – there is a thrilling, uncanny sense of freedom. I mean, for the reader. A freedom in infinite possibility; innumerable futures present themselves. I have not experienced this so acutely with any other writer.
It’s there too in the opening lines of The Music of Chance: Jim Nashe driving away from his past after a windfall of cash. After that, the story takes shape and the sense diminishes. Until then, however, no particular story is attached to the sense of freedom. Anything can happen. We are free. The beginning of the story is our windfall.
So why is do we feel an urge to continue reading rather than to throw the book aside and live that freedom? Probably because we prefer the illusion of freedom, the possibility of freedom rather than the real thing. We read to enjoy the specific story that replaces the vertigo of infinite freedom. As with a horror movie, we aren’t really horrified. Horror is only the playful withdrawal of a guaranteed safety. And narrative is the guarantee. With a novel, we know we have a circumscribed adventure before us.
Yet that narrative also makes our freedom come true for a moment, even if it is only an illusion. The open future may contain infinite possibilities but it never seems to happen for real. Consumed by habit, we lose contact with our freedom. Reading, or watching a film, reminds us of possibility even as it is removed. And in that reminder, it comes true. The obscure attraction of a book or a film might be, then, the pleasure of contact with possibility and relief in its withdrawal.
But such pleasure has a double edge of course. Indulgence in stories removes us from life; takes us to the end of possibility. Auster’s narrative is, as I’ve said, compelling. It is compelling but in the end doesn’t satisfy the indulgent reader. Oracle Night could go on for another thousand pages. Perhaps it does as Auster’s complete oeuvre. Yet it does stop. Although, actually, it doesn’t quite. The story within the story is not concluded. It is shocking and frustrating for the reader. One wants to know how the author Sidney Orr and the author Paul Auster resolve a chilling situation. At the end though Orr explains why it is left hanging and we realise that it stops precisely for the reason we don’t want it to stop. It is difficult to accept, yet not because it is wrong.
This has angered and confused naïve readers; those untroubled by stories. For instance, Aaron Hughes asks the right questions but asks them only of Oracle Night rather than literature in general. What does it mean, for example, to say that Oracle Night “is not a success” when the nature of success in literary terms is fundamental to the narrative itself? The answers present themselves in the novel under review. When you pick up a novel you become a reader, not a consumer.
Orr describes burning the blue notebook in order to escape its mysterious power; in order to flee the nightmare of possibilities it summoned. Indeed, the end of the novel seems overladen with terrible events. Orr writes: “The true story started only then, after I destroyed the blue notebook.”
We might compare this with something Auster – or should we say Orrster? – wrote in The Invention of Solitude at the very beginning of his career following after death of his father:
For the past two weeks, these lines from Maurice Blanchot echoing in my head: ‘One thing must be understood: I have said nothing extraordinary or even surprising. What is extraordinary begins at the moment I stop. But I am no longer able to speak of it.’ [from Death Sentence]
To begin with death. To work my way back into life, and then, finally, to return to death.
In Oracle Night, we joined Sidney Orr working his way back into life from the brink of death – working, that is, by writing. Yet the main symptom of his unnamed illness was dizziness, where the world became blurred and incoherent: a world without form. Almost as if language and meaning had been removed from his life. It took the discovery of the blue notebook and the writing of the new story to return him to both. But that only returns threatens another death, the death of possibility. It is Auster’s rare achievement to keep possibility alive and kicking even as it suffers a death by a thousand plots.