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Id come across Paul Austers work before but not many of his novels. Id seen and enjoyed a couple of films Smoke and Blue in the Face which he had written the screen play for, in fact Smoke was largely based on a novella that Auster had written called Auggie Wren's Christmas Story and I d promised myself that I would get around to reading some more of his books.
Oracle Nights tells the story of Sidney Orr a writer who is recently recovering from a life threatening illness. While still convalescing stuck at home with only reading and short yet taxing walks around the neighbourhood to pass the time he starts thinking about taking up writing again. While out on one of his daily walks he passes a small newly opened stationary shop the Paper Palace run by an enigmatic Chinese man called M.R Chang. There he finds and buys a blue leather bound Portuguese note book which he immediately feels exerts a strange influence over him. With the aid of this notebook he finds it easy to write and does so to the exclusion of everything else including his wife Grace. Orr starts writing a story about an book editor who comes across an old manuscript by a largely forgotten American writer Sylvia Maxwell and becoming obsessed with the work he disappears and begins a new life in Kansas City
For Sidney Orr the editors obsession in his story is mirrored by his own growing obsession with the notebook and thus starts a series of unpredictable events that lead Orr to re-evaluate his marriage, his relationships and ultimately fight for his life.
I was surprised to find that Oracle Night was Austers 11th novel, Im amazed that I had missed out on so much of his previous work. Hes always had a reputation as being a writers writer, intellectually challenging always playing with the format of the conventional novel and writing in a way that makes the style as important as the narrative. He seems to be appreciated most for his literary skills by those who share in the creative experience. Oracle Night doesnt disappoint on this count. It is extremely well written and while the actual story is difficult to define, part psychological thriller, part drama, part ghost story it is nevertheless compelling.
Auster gently introduces us into a familiar world but then subverts the people and events to produce an eerie atmosphere that becomes increasingly menacing and desperate. We feel a lot of sympathy for Sidney throughout the story and we get the feeling that slowly he is losing control. Through a series of inadvertent and random decisions his life begins to take an increasingly sinister turn. As a reader we can see this happening but Sidney remains oblivious to the darkening atmosphere that is surrounding him. Auster plays with familiar themes; trust in relationships, how much is our perception of who we are dependent on our interaction with others and our belief in knowing the true nature of others. The idea of chance and fate affecting our lives is also explored. At the core of the story there is guilt and a search for forgiveness and inevitably the past comes back to haunt all the main characters.
The way that the sense of menace increased as the story developed I thought was reminiscent of some of Ian McEwans work The Comfort of Strangers particularly comes to mind. You felt the same uneasiness and sense of impeding doom in this story as I did with some of McEwans novels and as a reader Auster doesnt allow to get to comfortable even a very safe situation has a hint of strangeness about it that could develop into something quite different, more sinister at any time.
Auster also manages to play with the narrative by the innovative use of footnotes as part of the storytelling. This is the aspect of the book that I found most confusing and the part that took me the longest to get used to. What Auster attempts to do is to provide an alternative narrative within the main body of the novel by the use of extended footnotes. Thus you will be reading the story and then come across a character or event, which is highlighted in the text. This will refer you to a footnote at the bottom of the page that will expand the description of the annotated item. For instance most of Sidneys past relationship with Grace, how they met and married is outlined in some detail in an extended footnote that continues for many pages. Once you have finished the footnote you have to go back a few pages to the point in the main narrative that the annotation first appeared. I found this quite distracting but it was obvious that unlike many footnotes in a story these additions to the text could not be avoided without missing much of the background to events and characters. I suppose Auster was trying to introduce a different way of presenting flashbacks which conventionally would have a character thinking back on events within the story, which can seem rather stilted and clunky as a narrative device. I think this was an interesting idea but I found it a little annoying at times although thankfully the lengthy annotations did diminish as the story progressed.
The other device that Auster uses is that of the story within the story. As Sidney is bewitched by the strange power of the note book he begins to write feverishly about Nick Bowen a book editor, who quite suddenly leaves his loving wife Eva, and tries to start a new life in Kansas City. This is in some way paralleling Sidneys own maybe subconscious insecurities about his marriage to Grace but the story Sidney is writing develops in an even stranger way as Nick gets involved with a mysterious Taxi Driver and an underground vault containing a collection of antique German telephone directories. The idea of the story within a story is further advanced by the inclusion of a long lost manuscript that Nick Bowen comes across written by yet another writer Sylvia Maxwell.
It all get a little complicated but it does make sense in the way that Auster writes it into the main story and all these convoluted narrative do serve a point as Sydney tries to get to the truth that lies behind his relationship with his wife.
Auster likes playing games and in this respect (albeit in a very New York style) he also reminds me of another intelligent author John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Magus). Although less overtly pretentious (in a playful sense) than many of Fowles novels Auster still provides the reader with much to think about beyond the simple story.
So Auster is a writers writer yes and it is easy to see why his technical skill can be appreciated by others in the profession, but also a very good read for anybody who enjoys a challenging format and story that will give you a little more to think about that the simplistic and predictable twists and turn of you average Da Vinci Code thriller.
Oracle Night in paperback (304 pages) published by Faber and Faber (ISBN: 0571216978)
can be bought from Amazon.co.uk (at the time this review was written!) for £3.99 (+p&p)
© Mauri 2006
Several months into his recovery from a near-fatal illness, thirty-four-year-old novelist Sidney Orr enters a stationery shop in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn and buys a blue notebook. It is September 18, 1982, and for the next nine days Orr will live under the spell of this blank book, trapped inside a world of eerie premonitions and bewildering events that threaten to destroy his marriage and undermine his faith in reality.