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.