Oracle Night by Paul Auster

OracleNight
I’ll start by saying this is the first Paul Auster novel I have read, although he has a large body of work. I was attracted by the enigmatic title, and by the first page of the novel. You’ve heard all that advice about hooking them from the first paragraph – Auster does it so well it looks easy.

Oracle Night is a deceptively simple story. Sidney Orr, a New York writer, has suffered a near-fatal illness, and is slowly recovering. He walks into a stationery shop called the Paper Palace,  run by the strange Mr Chang, and buys a blue notebook from Portugal.
This very simple act sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the question every writer, sooner or later, asks his or herself: why does everything I write come true?

Oracle Night is a writer’s novel – it is about a man writing a book about a man reading a book, to put it in the shortest possible terms. Orr uses the blue notebook to begin composing a story based on Dashiell Hammett’s `Flitcraftian episode’ from the Maltese Falcon, Flitcraft being a man who decided to walk away from his humdrum life after nearly being clipped by a falling beam from a construction site.

Orr’s protagonist Nick Bowen is an editor, reading a manuscript called Oracle Night by one Sylvia Maxwell. While out walking one night, he escapes death by inches when a piece of masonry plunges into the street. Like Flitcraft, he has an epiphany and sets off for Kansas City. Orr is using the Flitcraftian episode as a springboard for a new novel. As Orr writes compulsively in his blue notebook, fiction and reality begin to intertwine, and tragedy becomes inevitable.

Auster’s writing is extraordinary. While I found Sidney Orr to be a somewhat weak, unattractive character, I couldn’t stop reading. Orr breaks every rule in and out of the book – he eschews chapter headings, so the novel reads more like a long short story, he switches viewpoints and tenses willy-nilly, he writes long sentences with loads of commas, and he even adds numbers into the text for back of book notes, for Heaven’s sake.

Yet it all works, in this ghost story without ghosts. Orr is haunted by the past, and by his characters, and most of all by the feeling that the world has become a dangerous and unpredictable place.. Meanwhile, Orr’s wife Grace is acting oddly, his writer friend John Trause has a blood clot in his leg, and Trause’s son Jacob is heading for Hell in a hand basket.

It is truly fascinating to see how Orr develops his Flitcraft story, to watch briefly sketched characters come to life – and within this story again, is another story, the true Oracle Night, the story of a psychic called Lemuel Flagg. As for that question that every writer asks sooner or later – he wisely ends it on an uplifting note, or none of us would ever write another word.

Didn’t See That Coming Either…

I posted a little while back on the way science fiction of the 50s and 60s completely missed feminism in the future – not that far into the future either, let alone a century or two. But then sf writers were mostly male and they didn’t see the rise of female sf writers either. Speculation on what the future looked like was always a major theme in science fiction – indeed it became known as speculative fiction. But even as late as the last decade of the 20th century – even into the 21st century – sf still managed to miss the bleedin’ obvious.

It happens a lot with sf movies – only Kevin Costner’s much maligned Waterworld caught the whiff of changing times with bad guys called ‘smokers’ who scoured the endless oceans for ships carrying cigarettes. Everywhere else, smoking in the distance future was still regarded as normal. In the claustrophobic confines of the Nostromo, the crew lit up constantly, and more recently still, Sigourney Weaver’s xenobotanist in Avatar awoke from her sleep to demand “Where’s my Goddamn cigarettes?” Yeah right, try that on a space station. It seemed the western world’s rejection of passive smoking never occurred to those speculating on the future as they plugged away at their word processors in a nicotine smog. A future where smoking is banned almost everywhere (even in your own writing den if the niconazis had their way) – unthinkable! But at least Star Trek and Larry Niven postulated a future with no smoking on star ships or the invention of harmless cigarette substitutes. Maybe the Nostromo crew were vaping? But no way would Grace Augustine settle for that shit. Meanwhile, back on Battlestar Galactica Starbuck puffed on ‘fumarellos’ and you could collect cigarette cards of him doing that in the real world.

In spite of the video phones in Bladerunner, and the ire of Phillip K. Dick’s heirs over the name of Google’s 2010 smartphone, neither book nor the movie saw the splendid comedy of people walking into light-posts as they gazed intently at their screens and failed negotiate street furniture. Public video phones didn’t catch on, not because people would caught in embarrassing situations when the phone rang, but because they couldn’t be made vandal-proof. Personal phones that people can lose, drop in water or crack the screen are much more profitable.

But that’s the trouble with predicting the future. Like Forrest Gump’s mother said, “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.” (Well, you don’t if someone hides the chart guide to the fillings.) All you know is it will be different, and things you take for granted now will be banned or just disappear.