In the night, no refuge is to be found in sleep.
A new novel by Paul Auster is something of a literary event. Now in his mid-fifties, Auster still retains the aura of a younger, daringly experimental writer, consummately surfing the tidal wave of postmodernism and producing fiction that remains cerebral but readable, even strangely gripping, staying lucid rather than ludicrous. His touchstone themes of language, meaning, chance, writing, walking, fathers, sons, and overarching negation have gone through the permutations required for eleven novels since the mid- eighties, and countless critics and novelists have followed him into his idiosyncratic versions of Manhattan, Brooklyn, New York, and America itself.
For all his European connections (he remains more widely read in Europe; he has a formidable CV as a translator of French avant-gardeliterature and theory, and as an academic essayist) Auster still signifies the “contemporary American novel,” self- consciously dependent upon its own past, mapping the alleyways and side-streets tributary to the mainstream of American literary history. His novels, consequently, always carry a curiously detached air that is partly a result of style (of which more below), partly an effect of their conspicuous consumption of other writings, as if, within the fiction, we stand forever on the verge of a critical discussion.
Auster’s characters, usually male, often roughly corresponding to their author (like Stephen King, he finds being a writer a springboard for so many narratives), always go about their business with an air of detachment that sustains the reader in a condition of alienation that seduces, of complicity that excludes. The tale, in all its specific complexities (Auster retains his ability to weave a dark and intricate yarn), is told with an efficiency verging on the disparaging, as if the tale itself were not the point, as if it were merely the pretext for something bigger and altogether more intangible than the clumsy materiality of words.
Oracle Night continues his exploration of writing as a task both onerous and liberating, initiated by the purchase of a notebook (blue, in this case), leading the writer into worlds utterly different from and yet approximating this one, where “fiction” and “reality” blur together in a confusing and exhilarating tour-de-force of narration. One is left, at the end, wondering whether this book was really a collection of short stories welded together so the seams are still visible (I count at least eight separate but embedded narratives, all interlinked and interdependent).
The trademark literary games are here, as is the closed, blank style. The novel contains its fair share of suspicion and suspense, violence and violation, writing and walking (ending, as it begins, with the narrator on the streets of Brooklyn), qualifying it for the Auster canon. The narrator is Sidney Orr, a recuperating writer. His name recalls Orr the plane- crashing escapologist in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, suggesting that Sidney offers some kind of alternative. To what, we may ask. He buys a blue notebook from M. R. Chang (“Mental Resources. Multiple Readings. Mysterious Revelations,” ponders Sidney, strewing red herrings before us like a deranged fisher-detective. How about “Montague Rhodes,” as in James? This novel, after all, “reads like an old-fashioned ghost story,” according to the blurb. It doesn’t. It reads like an old-fashioned Paul Auster novel, in spite of its narrator’s occasional references to “my book of ghosts.”)
The notebook, and Sidney’s writing into it, generates the plots of numerous tales, leading us into a world of occasional bizarre coincidence, a Kafkaesque unreality (Auster has always seemed to me more akin to Kafka than to Beckett) where Sidney seems to be implicitly yet indirectly responsible for the book’s events, and suffers them even more stoically than Josef K. Auster’s style throughout resides in a prickly territory somewhere between cliché and mere convention. “He was hip, he lived on the edge, and he didn’t take crap from anyone,” we’re told of one rather one-dimensional character; right on. It’s difficult at such moments to untangle the implications - the narrator’s chronic uncool? Narrator’s/author’s irony? A satire on the character? Lazy writing? Auster, as he so often does, leaves us guessing.
Elsewhere we’re offered more meditations on language linked to the deeper theme of the novel, which is to do with how words, photographs and other forms of representation allow “the dead to keep their hold on us.” One narrative involves a three-dimensional slide viewer and some photos of the narrators’ adolescence. The embedded narrative of Oracle Night (itself a novel within a novel) leads its reader to a copy of the Warsaw telephone directory for 1937-38, and the realisation that “nearly every Jewish person listed in that book is long dead.” Auster is traversing territory recently explored by W. G. Sebald here, and even takes a leaf out of Sebald’s book, reproducing an image of the telephone directory as “proof.”
And yet, while Sebald evokes an immense 20th century history of suffering and estrangement from the micro-narratives of individual lives, similar material in Auster’s hands ends up being somehow unsatisfactory, merely an adjunct to what the book implies are its deeper themes. But can there be a more urgent and pressing concern for a writer like Auster? How can the horror of Dachau, momentarily related here, be left so incomplete, so tangential to the writer’s life in 1980s New York? And, while we’re at it, is the insistent date of “September 1982” meant to resonate with 9/11? Where are contemporary American concerns here, aside from being burgled by stereotype drug addicts in Brooklyn?
Oracle Night, to its author’s credit, provokes such interrogation in a way that other novels don’t, as if we can legitimately expect so much more from a writer who consistently delivers less, and who has made the theme of “lessness” his own defining quality. One dead-end narrative here involves a screenplay (dismally Americanised) for H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (again — prescience, or opportunism?). Fiction is its own time machine, Auster implies — like the 3D viewer, it is “a magic lantern that allowed him to travel through time and visit the dead.” On what we should do on such visits, Oracle Night retains a classically oracular ambiguity.