Oracle Night

by Paul Aster
ISBN: 0805073205

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A Review of: Oracle Night
by Michael Hale

Paul Auster can finally stop. After eight novels, three films, and over a dozen poetry collections and non-fiction books, the Jersey-born, Brooklyn-ensconced author has finally perfected the modern American cautionary tale.
Working in a genre begun by Poe, shaped by Hammett and saturated with the same fear that fires Americans-at their best, and at their worst-Auster's latest novel, Oracle Night, is a tone-perfect narrative of the modern American Everyman. And as much as we may not want to believe it, there are universals in Auster's characters that seep north into our colder, seemingly more ordered world. Urban mazes, drug-addicted middle-class kids and random acts of violence all belong in our cities. But Auster's tale is fundamentally American. And Sidney Orr, Oracle Night's main character, wouldn't be a misfit in quite the same way anywhere else as in New York.
Like Daniel Quinn (City of Glass), Nashe (The Music of Chance), and David Zimmer (Book of Illusions) before him, Orr is a shattered man questing for himself in an urban landscape built on shifting storefronts, seedy bars, subways and gritty newspaper headlines. It's a world that meshes perfectly with the discomforting anxiety that has periodically gripped America throughout its two-centuries long and counting quest for its own identity. And Auster's writing is particularly suited to the sentiment that is rippling through America at the moment. (It's no coincidence that the story takes place in New York in September.) All the unrest and insecurity that is slipping in and out of headlines, call-in shows and terror-alert faxes finds voice in his straightforward, headline-toned prose. After all, it's the same sentiments that shaped the consciousness of Auster's entire generation.
All the rage and anxiety felt today is just the latest mutation of the same tension that has plagued America through the Cold War, Vietnam and every other national calamity before and since. It is the same anxiety that generated rock n' roll in the 1950s and protest songs in the 1960s. And it's what makes Auster a rock n' roll author, of sorts. He's a three-chord genius who manages nuance in the middle of a three-minute pop song. For all the broken, singular male figures and long odysseys across unfamiliar landscapes, this is not Homer's territory. It's a simpler, scarier, journey. And like the best rock music, its core is dark and murky. Any hint of bubblegum choruses only exist to disarm the reader-to drown out that voice of warning in the back of your head that is nattering at you to keep your head up, to watch out for the exposed manhole, the locked room.
The story of the inexplicably crippled Orr is told in bold, gothic, hard-boiled riffs, and is just the latest instalment in Auster's attempt to capture the decomposing urban life-personal and public, emotional and rational. Orr says as much, after he tears up the blue notebook he's been writing in, leaving the characters within in limbo:

"I tore up the blue notebook and threw it into a garbage can on the corner of Third Place and Court Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. At the time it felt like the correct thing to do, and as I walked back to my apartment that Monday afternoon, nine days after the day in question, I was more or less convinced that the failures and disappointments of the last week were finally over. But they weren't over. The story was just beginning-the true story started only then, after I destroyed the blue notebook-and everything I've written so far is little more than a prelude to the horrors I am about to relate now."

When Auster writes, on page 232 (of a novel 243 pages in length), "the future was standing in front of me," that future is as obvious to the reader as it is to Orr-it's already been told, in gasps and spurts, over the previous pages and novels. But Oracle Night's greatest asset is that it goes one step further than the rest of Auster's books and offers up that most American of tropes-hope and rebirth. Orr, unlike so many of his predecessors, gets a shot at escaping the locked room. (Only a shot, mind you, but it's still something.)
Anyone who's read an Auster novel (Ghosts, Leviathan, Moon Palace) or seen an Auster film (Smoke, Blue in the Face or Lulu On the Bridge) knows the basic storyline of Oracle Night. The main character is an author with a debilitating injury that is never fully explained. All we know is that he is weakened, less than whole. His wife-if she is alive, as she is in this case-is more than he is, in some shadowed way. The author/main character pursues a trail towards an end that more often than not, leaves the reader and the character shattered. The driving force is a task or burden of the main character's own making, and it will take him into alleys and along roads that call out for sinister soundtracks and blaring road music. And there will be jarring violence. It will break out in brutal and intensely personal ways. And it will signal a shift in the plot that cannot be undone and cannot be forgotten.
In City of Glass, David Quinn pursued an oblivious man into oblivion. In Music of Chance, Nashe built a stone wall around himself after losing a poker game to Flower and Stone, a post-modern Laurel and Hardy. In Book of Illusions, David Zimmer undertook an impossible biography of a film star no one could see. In Oracle Night, it is all of the above.
Orr must find the shopkeeper, M.R. Chang, and fall into a world of seedy excess along the way. He must rebuild a crumbling marriage. And he must chronicle the life of a talented, but tortured, father-figure who both mentors and cuckolds him. Suffering from unbearable pain, each step Orr takes along the way requires colossal effort.
At the outset, he is broke and broken. His writing is stalled, as is his marriage. And he functions as a decrepit housewife to an astonishingly confident and bright woman. To a man born out of the tradition of hardboiled detectives and wounded, but unbowed, blue-collar heroes, that aspect of his story is perhaps most defeating. At least Orr is good in bed.
Worst of all, Orr is out of ideas. He has run out of the currency that bought him his place in his own life. Oracle Night is the story of how he takes it all back. It's his redemption and protest song, all rolled into one. And it is a clear signal that Auster can still play with the best of them.
To fans, Oracle Night will come as a great relief. With Orr's story, Auster has overcome the apparent boredom that had saddled his writing since Leviathan and Mr. Vertigo. After those novels, which continued the grand story of the lost soul wandering through fate's web, Auster turned to, of all things, the hidden life of dogs. Timbuktu bucked the trend by telling the sweetly sentimental story of Mr. Bones, a faithful dog, and his search for his master, Willy G. Christmas. It was, in some ways, a very different story. It was also Auster's first bestseller. Despite that success, Auster was already turning his back on the novel in favour of the ultimate American mistress-Hollywood.
First there was Smoke, followed quickly by its apparently improvised, more erratic and gritty sibling, Blue in the Face. And then came Lulu on the Bridge, a gorgeous, sometimes clunky, story of love glimpsed, lost and pursued. But though the medium had shifted, the tropes remained the same-the locked, barren room, the urban walks in search of an unattainable object and the violence. The same story was unfolding, just in a new way, on a new canvas.
The first time I ever picked up an Auster novel, I was a student, living on my own in a dump off Southwest Marine Drive in Vancouver. City of Glass was on my university reading list, and having had the cable cut off, I had no option but to actually read a book from that list. Several hours later, lying alone on a bed with no frame-no reference-I was left gasping for air. I had to call a friend at 2 a.m. just to hear another voice, to get my centre back. The story was that jarring and dislocating-that barren and, in many ways, hopeless. Since City of Glass, Auster's novels have pursued the same effect, to mixed success. Each time he told an original story using the same basic building blocks. There were new elements that echoed his own development-the silent film, the lingo and lifestyle of Hollywood-but the story, alas, hadn't evolved. Even Timbuktu had its shattered hero wandering the streets in search of a missing person. That the main character was a dog was just another way for Auster to reveal something new about his basic tale. That novel did hint at something more hopeful to come-though it is buried in the trash, beneath the notebook, the Daily News funnies and bodies-in Oracle Night. Before glimpsing that hope, however, the reader first has to negotiate the minefield of shifting stories, identities and levels of narrative.
Every Auster tale is driven by apparently simple, but cataclysmic wrong turns, and Oracle Night is no different. By page three, Orr alters his daily routine and "head[s] south, turning right when he [comes] to Court Street," forsaking his normal northern route.
It's a decision that mirrors David Quinn's first steps in his pursuit of Peter Stillman in City of Glass, and it foretells the terror that will ensue. Auster writes in bold strokes, not subtle allusions, so for those who missed the turn, he spells it out:

"The world is governed by chance. Randomness stalks us every day of our lives, and those lives can be taken from us at any time-for no reason at all."

If you didn't already know you were feeling your way blindly through a world intent on dragging you down, you do now. Like the best of Auster's prose, Oracle Night is capable of dislocating by layering narrative on top of narrative, slowly burying the characters and the readers.
We hear Orr telling his own story, whose narrative is modelled on Hammett's Flitcraft, a character used as a model for one of Orr's own stories that is retold as part of the main narrative. Already, the reader is slipping, grasping at storyline rungs as the plummet begins. Add to this the long string of footnotes, through which Orr explains the story he is already narrating, and the fall accelerates. (Those footnotes could in themselves sustain a review. Let it suffice to say that often they offer their own version of events, running perpendicular, rather than parallel, to the broader story.)
In Auster's capable hands, these collapsing realities become more than fictive conjurings or deconstructed detective stories. They become songs and prophecies. They become Oracle Night, a bold, fear-filled and redemptive novel of a shattered man rebuilding himself.
It is a fabulous story, and quintessentially American. Even in the darkness, it shines brilliantly.

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