Oracle Night by Paul Auster

Prophet and loss account
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The Independent Culture

Writers who publish a lot often reach might be called a dangerous proficiency. In this state, they can duplicate what they have done before, only on a lesser scale. John Updike spent the late 1990s in this zone. With his slender new novel, Paul Auster sails blithely into his own Bermuda Triangle of proficiency. It is all the more alarming because it plays directly into themes that have obsessed him, from the potential meaninglessness of art and existence to the way artists sacrifice credibility for a pay cheque.

In Oracle Night, Sidney Orr, a struggling novelist and screenwriter, falls ill and wakes up four months later. In September 1982, Orr buys a blue notebook. He returns home and, borrowing a premise suggested by his famous writer friend John Trause, begins pounding out a new novel. Never mind that Orr's wife, Grace, art director at a publishing house, needs attention: Orr needs to pay medical bills.

Auster is as skilled a metaphysical writer as America has, so it's no surprise when the story within the story proves very good indeed. In Orr's novel, a book editor named Nick Bowen is walking home from work when a falling gargoyle smashes down inches in front of his nose. Panicked, Nick goes to the airport and flies to Kansas City, taking with him the manuscript of a novel called "Oracle Night" in which a man is blinded and given the terrible gift of prophecy. Nursing his existential wounds, Nick meets a cab driver with the Borgesian project of storing old phonebooks in a bunker.

For the first half, Auster toggles delicately between this story and the strange details of Orr's life. Orr fills us in on his romance with Grace and his friendship with Trause, in footnotes. Gradually, though, these begin to take over the page.

Out of this friction between life and fiction develop the novel's potent but all-too-familiar themes: the ephemeral quality of memory, the prophetic powers of fiction, and the way that chance fuses the two during the making of art. Readers of Auster will be familiar with this approach, and the way it sets up fiction-writing as the redemptive pursuit. But what really grates about Oracle Night is not this novelistic chest-beating, but the slipshod way Auster brings it to the foreground, explaining the book to us whenever he has the chance.

As this book teeters on, it feels like Auster's musings on storytelling have tied him into a knot. As a topic, storytelling must also bear some narrative grist, of which this book has little. Auster ought to know this by now. We come to his books expecting illusions, not a behind-the-scenes look into how they are pulled off. Oracle Night, which has its high points, unfortunately boils down to an artist's tutorial. Auster should go back to being an artist.