||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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
It is a fabulous story, and quintessentially American. Even in the
darkness, it shines brilliantly.