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.

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“I Write Because I Simply Must!”

A great interview with the delightful Cynthia Ozick, author of Critics, Monsters, Fanatics and Other Literary Essays, at npr books

Ms. Ozick laments the loss of a literary culture, when the publication of a “serious literary novel was an exuberant community event.” The last time a book caused a such a reaction was Harry Potter. I attended an exuberant launch for Harry Potter and the Half B,lood Prince and it was great fun, with everyone dressed up as witches and wizards. I have also seen libraries in remote areas of Queensland that treat the arrival of a favourite author’s new book with great enthusiasm as everyone rushes to register to be among the first to read it.

But it is true that it’s all rather muted today. Bloomsbury knew they were onto a good thing with Harry Potter, and that Rowling’s fans were ready and willing to have their exuberance whipped up, but authors mostly have to make the party themselves, with kickstarters, blog tours and whatnot.

I miss literary culture too, I miss writers who could get you heart fluttering with the release of a new book like A.J. Cronin, J.B. Priestley, Elizabeth Goudge, Nevil Shute and so many others, long gone now, who made being a book lover such an adventure. What would they thrill and enchant us with next?

Well, I have Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to look forward to, as well as Ms. Ozick’s latest.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again – Robert Silverberg

time hoppers

I knew Silverberg prior to this on the stength of one book – Romany Star – which I read simply because it was the only sf book I ever came across that was about gypsies. I enjoyed it immensely, especially the rollicking main character Yakoub.
I always intended to read Letters From Atlantis, Silverberg’s first venture into the Romany Star universe, but never got around to it until recently, when I found  in the public library. Sadly, I found Letters From Atlantisa bit wet, if you’ll pardon the pun. The Atlanteans seemed too settled, fatalistic and reliant on their gods to be the descendants of Romanies – Yakoub was more what I would have expected. Prince Ram had none of Yakoub’s opportunism and verve. The Rom may look downtrodden and dumbly accepting of a cruel fate to some, but this is far from the truth – these are a strong people with a rich culture, and a whole hearted approach to life. Besides, I don’t really like the letter format. It seemed quite stupid of the protagonist to be writing letters to his girlfriend in the ice age.
The other stories were Project Pendulum and The Time Hoppers, both far more satisfying. (I should mention that such is the power of Silverberg, that I could not put this book down, even though it started with the story I liked least).
Project Pendulum</em> is a tour de force, swinging back and forth between past eras and incredible visions of the future. Of the three, it is my favourite, since it showcases everything I love about Silverberg, his evocative prose, his ability to create credible characters with just a few strokes of the pen, his powerful story telling.
The Time Hoppers was interesting. It covered so many of the issues that we worried about in the 60s, such as the population explosion, ecology and could time travellers affect the future by stuffing up in the past (to put it in modern terms, if I travel back into the past and kill a butterfly, will I cease to exist in the future?”) that it was like time warping back into one of those earnest discussions we used to have between recitations of beat poetry.
But what was chiefly interesting was that Silverberg, like so many sf writers of the 60s, completely missed the one major change that would place over the following decades – the status of women. Even though it is 500 hundred years into the future, the women of Silverberg’s world still define their lives by marriage. The protagonist is Queller, a `class seven’ – which means in that overcrowded world, that he can have a room to himself. His sister Helaine is married to a god-awful specimen with whom she shares one room and the regulation two children. Helaine is married – full stop. She has no career, she stays home and programs the cooking. Her husband is unemployed, but there is no suggestion that Helaine look for a job instead. Her youngest child, a boy, jokes to his older sister that he can realise his ambitions because he `has something that she hasn’t got.” A penis, of course.
Did no one see the women’s revolution coming? Or did Silverberg dismiss the rumbling in the female ranks, deciding that if space and jobs were at a premium, women would be forced to mind the kids anyway? It was not only surprising to me that one of the most visionary writers in sf should think that women would still be wearing aprons 500 years into the future, it also startled me how badly it stood out. Like a sore thumb in fact. Now we expect to see women fighting the aliens and taking charge of space ships and colonies, and to read a book still set in the 50s mindset is completely jarring.
Even to read sf actually written by a woman back in the 60s was something of a novelty. Women were deemed too soft and emotional to be able to write hard sf, and of course, what did they know about science anyway?
Even now, the women’s role in sf has been to look at the human impact of the future, but it’s something the men have picked up on as well, and both sexes abound in sf now – you can no more expect the woman to be manning the kitchen than you can expect a man to be manning the controls of the space ship, or blasting the bejaysus out of the aliens.
Ah, the old time warp – so nostalgic, and so intructive. A writer must remember not to overlook the most blatantly obvious changes that time may bring.

Isaasc Azimov’s comment on the book cover is quite ironic in view of Siverberg’s failure see the sexual revolution up ahead – buyt then Azimov wore the same blinkers.

 

Make Art, Not War

Federal Election time in Australia. Meh. We don’t even have a reality TV moron to spice things up – we just have politicians. The real problem is that the two major parties are starting to look worryingly like each other as well. I’m sick of the pathetic knee-jerk slogans – stop the boats, back to basics : the latter always used in educational matters, as if any of these idiots even know what the basics are. Not since Whitlam have the arts even been regarded as fundamental in education. As soon as the conseravtives took over, waving slates and chalk and chanting “back to basics!” the arts have been shoved in a corner, becoming more and more the refugees of Australian culture, thrown  scraps and set adrift in leaky boats. Yet those in the arts retain their grip on our senses, with music, books, art, films and other brave sttempts to remind who we truly are. Imagine what they could do in a society that realises how lucky it is to have them?

But this election year, there is a small glimmer of hope. It’s cslled The Arts Party and it wants your vote to triple funding for the arts and make Big Corp pay up to chnnel more money into our cultural renaissence. It even has a poet in residence composing haiku.

Want one million votes

For the balance of power

Wear an Arts T-Shirt

OK, it sounds more like an ad than poetry but all artists have a sense of  humour that can’t be kept down. And that’s what we need. More art, more humour, more music, more books, more films – more encouragment and a better environment for Australians who want to make art, not war.

You’ll find the Arts Party here I hope they get their million votes, and more, because that is one way to tell these politicians that It’s Time.

 

My Poetry Rules: Reality Shows for Artlovers

studioWhy are reality shows always about cooking and building? Why not a reality show for writers? Challenge the contestants to come up with a poem or first chapter and have it critiqued by the other contestants and two professionals. Not a Frenchman in a badly fitting suit or a paleo addict who’s been painted a shimmery shade of bronze, but a publisher and a working full time writer who will try not to look bored/horrified while listening to the contestant’s musings.

Instead of a menu of inedible food, have a menu of indigestible poetry – a limerick or a haiku for the entrée, a ballad or saga for mains and a sonnet or villanelle for dessert. And why stop at poets and novelists? Let artists create a menu of pastels, oil portraits and watercolours; musicians can present a light ballad, a rousing anthem and a sweet love song; crafters can fashion pot holders, quilts and soft cushions – it could go on and on.

instead of instant restaurants the contestants could create instant galleries in their own homes and stress over a broken conte crayon or a squished tube of paint. Poets could sob over their iambic pentameters and novelists could have meltdowns because they can’t spell pneumatic (is that right?) You could have the usual suspects for contestants – the snotty Melbournites looking down on the other plebs; the eager to please puppies hoping for a pat on the head and a Schmackos; the wild outbackers piling up installations made of hay bales and rusty old tractors; the ‘villains’ rating everyone else’s art as passé so they can climb further up the leaderboard – oh, come on, it would be so much more fun

 

C.S. Lewis, a reminiscence

Pauline Baynes
Pauline Baynes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A long time ago, I listened to a serial on the radio called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I had no idea who had written it, or anything about it, except that it was the loveliest story I had ever heard. A few years later, I came across the Puffin paperback edition with the beautiful Pauline Baynes cover of Susan, Lucy and Aslan, and I bought it – more out of curiosity than anything. I had only ever heard the radio play. What would the book be like?

That book started a literary adventure that took me to so many places, to Narnia and beyond, to Mars and Venus (Malacandra and Perelandra) in Lewis’ space trilogy, to Heaven itself (which Lewis describes as being so sharp and real that it would hurt our poor mortal feet to try and walk on the grass). I devoured every book by C.S. Lewis I could get my hands on. I haunted bookshops and libraries, looking for that magical name. It made no difference to me that he was a Christian writer, and I did not consider myself a Christian (although I had been baptised a Roman Catholic as a baby). He was simply a wonderful writer, full of humanity, humor and literary skills that excelled anything I had already encountered. The clarity and beauty of his writing, and the humanity of his philosophy, captivated me.

I shared Narnia with my children and read them a chapter a night from the books, and later they did the same with their own children. Lewis spanned the universe, and the imagination, and he spans the generations as well. He made me want to be a writer.

He was born on November 29, 1898, more than a Century ago. Now he is in that place he envisaged in his books – at least I hope he is. Such a Heaven deserves to exist, and C.S. Lewis deserves to be in Aslan’s Country.

 

The Man Who Would Be Jack the Ripper

The "From Hell" Letter postmarked 15...
The “From Hell” Letter postmarked 15 October 1888 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no shortage of books purporting to have been ‘discovered’ in a secret hiding place, rather than written by a contemporary author. It’s a popular conceit in the literary world, and sometimes it succeeds for a while. But The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper has a twist. The manuscript, it is claimed, was found among the possessions of a real person, the late S.G. Hulme-Beaman, who created Toytown and Larry the Lamb.

 According to the preface, Hulme-Beaman’s niece, Mrs. Jean Caldwell, called Alan Hicken, of the Montacute TV, Radio and Toy Museum in Somerset, and asked him if he would like a collection of memorabilia belonging to her uncle. As Larry the Lamb was a popular radio character for children, Hicken enthusiastically accepted. Among the items, he found an unpublished manuscript, The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper.

 The author of the ms. claimed to be one James Carnac, the son of a doctor who was briefly a medical student in his turn, and who, in the book, claimed to be the man who killed and dismembered several women in London’s Whitehall district in the 1880s. Part One of the book is about Carnac’s early life, while Part Two covers the period of the murders. Part Three appears to be Carnac’s last years before his death.

 After reading the manuscript and becoming convinced it was genuine, Hicken passed it on to crime historian and ‘ripperologist’ Paul Begg. His lengthy analysis also appears in the book, as well as a prologue by him, in which he states that, at the very least, this manuscript can’t be viewed as legal evidence, as it is not signed by witnesses.

I’m not convinced it is anything but a piece of fiction. It was likely written by Hulme-Beaman himself, who like J.K. Rowling, probably just wanted to do something different after writing for children. So the only question is – is it any good? And the answer to that is no. If you are looking for shock and horror, there are any number of books that will give you blood curdling descriptions of the crimes. This one won’t. It is claimed the manuscript was ‘edited’ by the executor of Hulme-Beaman’s will, which is very handy if you don’t want to into detail that might be proved wrong. As well, it is badly written, and here the author falls back on that old excuse that goes something like “I’m a serial killer, not a writer.” Ho hum.

Then there is the fact that James Carnac never existed at the time and place he mentions in the manuscript, nor is there any record of his parents, his landladies or anyone else connected to him (except the victims). Possibly he changed all the names – but why would he, if this is a confession only meant to be read after his death?

 So, on this occasion, the ‘discovery’ might actually be real, but what was discovered is still clearly a work of fiction. If you want to make the world think someone long dead wrote your manuscript, you are going to have to a hell of a lot more convincing than this.

9780552165396

The book is available at Book Depository. My thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.