Oracle Night by Paul Auster

Now what's all this about the metaphysics of paper?
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The Independent Culture

Frequent visitors to Austerworld will feel instantly at home in his new novel. First-timers, though, may be a little fazed by an accumulation of coincidences, texts within texts, footnotes and literary references even greater than the usual.

Oracle Night's narrator is a familiar specimen. Like Paul Auster, Sidney Orr is a Brooklyn-dweller and a writer, currently blocked due to his slow recovery from a long illness. On 18 September 1982, he buys a blue notebook from a new stationery shop and, over the next nine days, his life falls apart. His first conversation with the man behind the counter, the enigmatic M R Chang, is typically strange. "What kind of stationery store owner was this," Sidney wonders, "who expounded to his customers on the metaphysics of paper... ?". Simple, you think: the Austerian kind.

Sidney's troubles begin as soon as he puts pen to paper. The words flow easily, and we're soon immersed in his narrative. Nick, an editor, has a close brush with death and walks out on his life to start over in Kansas City. There he meets Ed Victory, a cab driver with an underground archive of the world's phone directories which needs sorting into chronological order. Nick throws himself into the work, but can't quite leave his old job behind him. He's obsessed with "Oracle Night", the manuscript of a previously unpublished work by 1920s novelist Sylvia Maxwell, and with Maxwell's own granddaughter, Rosa.

The narratives begin to bleed into one another. Sidney gives his character, Nick, a relationship with one of his own friends, a 56-year-old Brooklyn-based novelist called John Trause. (Yes, that is an anagram and yes, that is Auster's age.) Rosa, Nick's beloved, shares the physical characteristics of Sidney's wife, Grace. Grace, in turn, begins dreaming of the underground room in her husband's story, though she has never read the work. And Sidney himself, who is also working on an adaptation of Wells's The Time Machine, begins disappearing from his study, though he is sure he has never left his desk.

Oracle Night abounds, as ever with Auster, in references to other works from The Maltese Falcon to La Vita Nuova, from The Little Prince to Walden. Its stories dovetail and diversify, echoing these literary models as well as many of Auster's other writings. This novel circles once more around his abiding obsessions. His earliest fictions, contained in The New York Trilogy, set out the same patterns. The compulsive behaviour of an old man spelling out a sinister message through his daily walks on New York's streets in "City of Glass" finds its counterpart in projects such as Ed Victory's. The preoccupation with colour that dominates the story of a private eye named Blue in "Ghosts" is mirrored by the blue notebooks and "Blue Team" that take central place in the new tale. The strongest parallels lie in "The Locked Room", about a writer who walks out on his marriage and goes into hiding, leaving his friend to publish the previously unseen works he left behind.

It's tempting too - indeed Auster invites us - to extend the margins of these stories out beyond the fiction and into the novelist's own life. The publication of his Collected Prose, late last year, showcased his continuing delight in the coincidental in pieces such as "The Red Notebook", not to mention his fetishism for stationery. Some associations are less welcome. Oracle Night's John Trause is tortured by the behaviour of his miscreant, drug-addicted son, Jacob. The much-reported problems of Auster's own son, Daniel, appear to weigh heavily here, as they did in the recent What I Loved by Auster's wife, Siri Hustvedt.

The New York Trilogy was a landmark. Though fiction these days is endlessly tricksy and postmodern, Auster still retains his effortless superiority to the rest. Who else, after all, would dare to declare, with 220 pages of the latest novel under his belt and barely 20 still to go, "The story was just beginning... ".