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Paul Auster: Oracle Night

Whether Sidney Orr is, at least partially, Paul Auster is open to question, not least as there is a character called John Trause, Trause, of course, being an anagram of Auster. Nevertheless Orr is a writer, who likes exploring New York and, at least during the course of this novel, is a not very successful writer. At the start of the novel, he has been very ill – close to death, in fact. When he recovers, he starts to write a story, inspired by a conversation he has with his friend, the much more successful John Trause. The story is based on the Flitcraft story in Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon and tells of a man, a successful real estate agent, apparently happily married with a family, who one day goes out to lunch and never returns. Detective Sam Spade eventually tracks him own to Spokane, where he has started another family. In Orr’s story, the man, Nick Bowen, suddenly, for no reason, takes a plane to Kansas City, giving up a successful life. In Kansas City, he meets Ed Victory, who has a huge collection of phone directories, hidden in an underground basement, probably a former bomb shelter. Bowen is hired to sort out the directory collection but gets trapped in the shelter, unaware that his employer will not come to rescue him but has had a heart attack and died. Orr is stuck on the story and does not know how to continue it.

This is Auster at his best, with all sorts of post-modern conundrums. Orr is married to Grace. She starts behaving strangely. What is happening? He wants to write his story in a special kind of Portuguese notebook, which he has been unable to track down but then finds a new stationery shop, run by an enigmatic Chinese man, Mr. Chang (or, rather, M. R. Chang), which stocks them. However, when he returns, Mr. Chang has gone and so has his stock but, somehow, he turns up in another part of town (Orr finds him by chance), but refuses to sell the notebooks to Orr. Orr needs money so he volunteers to take on the script of a film, in which a time traveller goes back to the time of the Kennedy assassination to prevent Kennedy being assassinated. We also learn about another story within a story. Bowen, before he ran off to Kansas City, was working as an editor at a New York publishing house. He has received the manuscript of a story called, of course, Oracle Night. It was written by a popular novelist of the twenties and thirties called Sylvia Maxwell, who had been having an affair with a British artist. She had left the manuscript with the artist and he had kept it for the rest of his life, long after their affair had finished, leaving it in his will to Maxwell’s granddaughter. Indeed, indirectly, it is his meeting with Maxwell’s granddaughter, as well as a near-death experience, that prompts Bowen to suddenly go off to Kansas City. And, in standard post-modernist style, there are footnotes to the book, that indicate that Orr may not be a reliable narrator.

But, just as we think this is all post-modern fun and games, Auster gets (somewhat) serious. Grace is pregnant but he wants the baby (despite their difficult financial situation). She does not. Why not? Trause has a blood clot which does not seem to be healing. And Trause’s son, Jacob, seems to be heavily – too heavily – involved with drug dealers and he asks Sidney (whose apartment may have been burgled by Jacob) to help out. And things with M. R. Chang start to go very badly. But, just as Sylvia Maxwell influences, to some degree, Nick Bowen, so Bowen influences to some degree Sidney Orr but, in both cases, Auster does not drive this home but leaves it tantalisingly open. The real life versus the imagined life is done so well by Auster that we are left wondering which is which but, once again, we know that Auster is one of the finest post-modernist writers.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Henry Holt