Oracle Night by Paul Auster

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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.

“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

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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.

 

Leafing Through the Pages of Time

My love of magazines began in childhood. My mother bought stacks of them every month and passed them on to me after she had read them cover to cover. Titles like Woman, Woman’s Own, Woman and Home were the ones I saw most, with an occassional Photoplay thrown in, but I was also quite happy to get my father’s Mechanics Illustrated when he had done with it and filed his favourite projects. No one remarked on the clear definition of interests – things were very traditional then. At street markets we bought American magazines like Life and Seventeen (my personal favourite – how I longed for a pair of saddle shoes!) My mother loved Life magazine – a confirmed royalist, she cherished her copy with this portrait of the then Princess Elizabeth on the cover.

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So my main interest in vintage mgazines is mainly womens’ magazines from the 1940-60s. The physical changes are immediately apparent when you look at the covers – older magazines are thinner, smaller but more densely packed with text.
As you come up through the decades, the paper becomes smoother and glossier, the pictures get larger, color is introduced and, of course, the advertising becomes more lavish. So if you remove the larger illustrations and the pages of advertising, womens’ magazine have actually not increased much in text content.
But how that content has changed! Our mothers and grandmothers really enjoyed their magazines, and looked forward to every issue. Just skimming through a magazine of the 50s shows plenty of varied reading matter, from short stories and serials to feature articles.
The idea that women’s magazines once only contained recipes and knitting patterns is quite wrong. The target reader for these publications come across as outgoing, curious and eager to learn about the world she lived in.
In contrast to the self-absorbed reader of today, there is a noticeable lack of self improvement and self analysis. Problem solving was strictly practical – the advice columnists were no nonsense types who upheld strong social values and had little time for women who could not control erring husbands and wayward emotions.
There were the pages of recipes, but in the older magazines, these didn’t have today’s mouthwatering illustrations. The favored cooking style was cheap and plain. Foreign food was largely unheard of, and even Chinese cooking got little attention. The curry was a popular dish because it could be left stewing all day while housewives got on with the business of housekeeping without modern aids.
Crafts were simple, mostly confined to knitting patterns, crochet and embroidery – some of these are so pretty, I am tempted to learn to knit!
Toward the end of the fifties, the magazines started to include movie news and reviews and star stories, but nowhere near the salacious content we see today. The stars are never seen at less than their best and little reference is made to their private lives. In fact, one article strongly defended Hollywood marriages, saying the divorce rate in the star community was smaller than the populace at large!
Some obsessions seem to be perennial. There are long articles discussing the latest trends in child rearing, and the problems associated with motherhood. Did you think that diets were the prerogative of our generation? Wrong, women of the early 20th century were just as concerned with the state of their figures. But the ideal wasn’t a six pack set of abs, it was a tiny waistline. There are lots of ads for miracle slimming pills and other products that “magically melt away that ugly fat.”
No political correctness or consumer protection guarded gullible readers against these ads, but they were no sillier than the claims for miracle herbal “fat blasters” today.
The aim of slimming was just the same – to look as good as the willowy models in the fashion pages. But the bodies were very different – full hips, nipped in waists, and womanly bosoms – the ideal was the `hourglass figure’.
No wonder women of the sixties fell on the `sack’, a shapeless, waistless, baggy number that skimmed all manner of figure faults. But even then, one catty fashion editor remarked that it looked much better with a belt.
The magazines of the 40s, 50s and 60s were aimed at the homebody, to be enjoyed with a cuppa and your feet up after a hard day’s housework. If you want that kind of cosy reading today, you have to go to the `lifestyle’ magazines.
Today’s women’s magazines, with their lip licking celebrity gossip and pages of advertising, are clearly designed for the woman with nothing better to do than read them.

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.

 

Halloween countdown: The Trees

The Trees

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The trees are driving me crazy. Can’t anyone else see what they are up to? They are colluding, whispering together. Getting closer, I could walk between these two a week ago. Now they block my path, like threatening sentinels.

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Even in the city they creep up, they invade, they terrorise humans going about their business. What do you think these two are up to?

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At night I fear them most of all. They gather around my house, rustling and muttering, shaking their branches and leaves in the moonlight. What do they want? Why are they becoming so bold and intrusive?

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At night the ghost gums come haunting, creeping through the darkness toward the house, drawing close to each other in conspiratorial silence, yet I can hear them whispering to each other, rustling and creaking, and watching us.

I think they are angry. I think they want us to know that they have had enough of us. I think they want to cut us down as we have been cutting them down, to uproot our houses and our lives and reclaim the land from us. I think they hate us because of this…

Note: The idea of this is to use the photos I’ve taken of random objects that have ‘faces’ embedded or have a spooky or weirdly human quality, as prompts for Halloween prose and poetry. Feel free to copy the images and use them as prompts for your own stories. Leave me a link so I can see the results 🙂

Halloween Countdown: How did I get here?

Another Halloween story suggested by a photo in my collection.I spotted this sad eyed stag at a twilight market, and I have been thinking about it ever since.

how did I get here

How did I get here?

Stop. Stop! Don’t just walk past. It’s me! Look closer! You can see it’s me.

Stop sniggering at your new husband. His joke was lame, and you know it. “Oh dear, oh dear. I think he lost his head.” Pathetic. You actually laughed. Do you think it’s funny that I, Antonio, the love of your life, is nailed to a piece of wood? Look at me! Don’t you recognise my moustache?

Oh Laura, what happened to me? Yours was the last face I saw on that night, with the full moon shining in the window, before everything went black, and I woke up on the wall in my father’s house. That huge ornate mirror he bought in Florence was on the opposite wall, and I could see what had become of me. I didn’t realise at first – only after days of staring at that damned mirror did I understand that my head looks like this now. And it isn’t attached to my body.

I have been thinking that my papa mistook me for one of the deer on his estate. These are a fine pair of antlers, I must say. So big. He must have spotted me and shot me, not knowing it was I, Antonio, his only beloved son. For years I hung there, unable to communicate, watching you visit Papa’s estate and take care of him in his old age. Every time you came he asked you the same question. “Have they found my son?”

I watched you weep at his funeral, and laugh when they read the will and he left everything to you. Then the men came, the buyers and the dealers, and everything was sold and bundled out. Including me.

Oh look, the little one is speaking again.

“So, Laura, did you tell him, at the last, of your powers? Or was he still too dazzled by your beauty to know you are a witch?”

“Not a full time witch, Paulo. Only when there is a full moon at Halloween. Then I can do anything I want. Poor, poor Antonio.” She reached over and stroked the dark mark beneath my nose, the exact replica of my moustache. “Come, Paulo, now you have come into your uncle’s fortune, you can afford to buy me a peach gelato, no?”

Yes,” he said adoringly. “Gelato, and diamonds, rubies, anything you want.”

Her laughter tinkled as they walked away. Poor, poor Paulo, too besotted to realise that tonight was Halloween, and the moon was full.

A Moment of Clarity

Writers experience many Aha! moments. Aha! That’s how this story ends. Aha! She’s in love with him, that’s why she hates him. Aha! A paying market!!!! (Lots of exclamation marks for that one, it’s so rare.)

But my most recent Aha! moment had nothing to do with the story I was working on last night. It started that way – Aha! I know what’s wrong with this story. So in  spite of the fact I had my granddaughter Lyta chattering in my ear, relating for me the entire script of her favourite My Little Pony movie, I got stuck into it on my laptop, and gave the story what it lacked – emotion.

Lyta paused in her narration, looked at the words appearing on the screen, and said, “are you an author?”

My fingers hovered in the air. All my working life I had described myself as a writer, a simple humble wordsmith chipping away. I had even worked as a journalist and was happy to claim that title, but even then it was just a job. Mostly my writing had been regarded as a little hobby of mine.  J.K. Rowling was an author. Miss Read was an author. Fame and the ability to live off your writing (in Rowling’s case, with bells on) seemed to be a necessary component.

I looked at the dreamy eyed girl who was so much like me a very long time ago, making up stories, drawing and colouring, happily lost in her own world. One day, I thought, it’s going to mean a lot to her that she knew a real author, and that it was her grandma.

“Yes, I am,” I said. She nodded happily and went back to her narration.

I’ve mentioned before that I am in the third year of a five year plan, without even knowing exactly what it is I want to have achieved at the end of it. Maybe nothing at all – maybe just a better understanding of who I am and what I want to do with the third age of my life. Naturally after decades of writing, being a sometime journalist, and frequently getting disheartened and wondering if there just might be something else I can do, the idea of giving it all up has frequently surfaced. What have I ever really gained from writing? What have I ever given the world as a writer? Just a bunch more words, a lot more wasted trees and occasionally a memorable phrase or two that has been lost and forgotten in the sheer avalanche of words that pours out every year.

But – I’m an author.  My son’s an author, my daughter Lucia is a poet and a singer.  Lyta said, when I asked her, that she wants to be an author some day. It’s a family calling, it’s genetic, it’s in the DNA. and who knows where it will pop up and what it will reveal.