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Books: Oracle Night

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

I hailed Cloud Atlas as "the best book I've read in years." For a week, at least. Then, seven days later, I finished Oracle Night by Paul Auster, and that novel usurped the "best book" title. I'd never heard of Auster before, but after mentioning my admiration for the novel to some friends, they replied knowingly that he's one of the best in the business. I'll have to read a few more tomes by the guy to determine if I agree with that assessment, but I was certainly taken with the the way Night was written.

The story is set in 1982, with protagonist Sidney Orr recovering from a near-fatal illness. An author by trade, Orr has been unable to muster the energy or inspiration to write during his recuperation. But his muse returns in force after Orr wanders into a paper store and purchases a mysterious blue notebook. Here the focus of Night shifts to the story-within-the-story, as it devotes several dozen pages to describing the narrative that Orr is jotting in his notebook. From this point on the novel switches back and forth between Orr's reality and the fiction he is penning (and sometimes even to stories within Orr's story), and curious parallels between the two begin to emerge. That an author's work would mirror his own life is of course unsurprising, but the stories that Orr writes in his blue notebook are not only reflective of his past, but, in some cases, also eerily predictive of his future. In fact, soon after he resumes his craft, Orr's life becomes as convoluted and intriguing as that of the characters he's created.

Oracle Night is written in first-person, as if in a journal or a letter to a friend, with Orr relating the tale several decades after the events occur. This informal tone makes the book feel unusually intimate. Though the story is rife with odd coincidences and forces that appear to be borderline supernatural, we understand that Orr is providing us with an honest -- albeit subjective -- account of the events, and that he has no more insight into the strange occurrences than the reader does. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the unresolved ambiguities in Night, whereas I criticized Cloud Atlas for same. Night is like a ghost story told to you by a friend -- you don't know whether to believe every element of the tale, you only know that he believes them all. And this aspect adds yet another layer to a book that already has more levels than a parking garage.

One thing I disliked: the book is infested with copious footnotes, some of which run for several pages. I guess they were intended to further the illusion that Orr was providing us with as full an account as possible, but they only served to pull me away from the main story and send me off on tangents. And I didn't have the willpower to simply not read them. Aside from that, though, I thought Oracle Night was fantastic, and I look forward to reading more by Auster. If his other novels are as good as this, I'm sure I too will be raving about him in the near future.

Posted on April 06, 2005 to Books


Thanks. I haven't read that one. Whenever I read (past tense*) Paul Auster it makes me wish I could write like Paul Auster.

(*Past tense due to the fact that mommies don't read fiction much. When I was thinking about becoming a mommy that was definitely on the 'con' list. Isn't it weird I don't care about that now, considering that I read at least one novel or short story collection a week for the last ten years...and sometimes more?)

Posted by: Miel on April 7, 2005 10:11 PM

Miel, I like that you handle the ambiguity of the word 'read' (red vs. reed) by clarifying that you intend to use the form that does not match the tense of the other verb in the sentence.

Posted by: Klaas on April 7, 2005 10:27 PM

Dude, read the New York Trilogy immediately.
I'm dubious that "Oracle Night" is anywhere near as good, after years of disappointment, but I'm willing to give him another chance.

Posted by: Wha? on April 8, 2005 1:24 AM

Auster has also been involved with some movies, my favorite being "Smoke." Check out his IMDb profile. I love Auster, but The New York Trilogy isn't my favorite. His non-fiction is really great, too.

Posted by: mokin on April 8, 2005 2:58 AM

I foolishly failed to get on board with your book recommendations for awhile; after spending this week reading The Curious Incident.. and Stiff (teehee teehee) while on Easter break from course-work, I decided that I was not giving your word the power it demands.

I will begin following your advice as closely as possible and will pick these books up next week.

Posted by: keith on April 8, 2005 5:31 AM

After reading your review, I think you'll dig
"The Book of Illusions." It has the "story within the story," and gets my "must re-read this again and again" award.

No footnotes, either.

Posted by: Hoyt on April 8, 2005 5:43 AM

I was looking at my Amazon wishlist last night, wondering why Cloud Atlas was listed. Opened your blog this morning and said, "Ah-ha!" So, should I read the Auster first?

Posted by: AF on April 8, 2005 6:41 AM

This sounds like a conceptual cousin of Mark Danielewski's 'House of Leaves', which is a brilliant horror novel. 'Leaves' even also has literally labrynthian footnotes, which might bug you, but a key to the structure of the book as a whole.

Posted by: chris r on April 8, 2005 8:37 AM

If you like the story within the story, Italo Calvino wrote 2 of the best novels I've ever read. "If On a Winter's Night a Traveler" and "Invisible Cities" are absolutely amazing. The former has the classic opening lines "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, 'If on a winter's night a traveler'. Relax. Concentrate." It's about you, the reader, and your attempt to read the book, but it's much more than that. The latter just has to be read, it really defies description (at least, one that does it justice).

Posted by: Hooha on April 8, 2005 10:35 AM

Will it make me question my existence? I'm not ready for books like that.

Posted by: Super Turtle Girl on April 8, 2005 11:44 AM

"City of Glass" (the first book of the New York Trilogy) -- you can finish it in a day, easily. And "In the Country of Last Things". Please -- now. They will blow you away.

Posted by: swotus on April 8, 2005 12:57 PM

My favorite Auster is "Moon Palace". I still think about wonder about the charcters, as if thinking of long-lost friends or classmates.

Posted by: mlle_m on April 8, 2005 3:59 PM

"Moon Palace" and "New York Trilogy" are both amazing. I also really enjoyed "The Red Notebook." The first two are definite reads though.

Posted by: Louise on April 8, 2005 5:44 PM

Ironically, Auster comes up for some fairly pointed criticism in the recent "A Reader's Manifesto," which ruffled a lot of feathers in "literary" circles a few years ago.

Posted by: asg on April 8, 2005 9:30 PM

Auster's "Leviathan" never gets as much attention as I think it should. It deals with friendship and loss, and how inscrutable our best and most knowing friends can be. The last several pages are frankly heartbreakingly lovely.

Posted by: paul on April 9, 2005 1:25 AM

I've read an enormous amount of Auster (obsessed for about three years there) and _Oracle Night_ isn't even one of his better novels, though it's still better than 99.9999% of the novels put out in any given year. You really should read both _The New York Trilogy_ and _The Book of Illusions_ for the best of his early and recent work. Picador Press also put out a graphic novel based on _City of Glass_ (part of the _Trilogy_) that I thought was both faithful and revelatory. After that, try _Leviathan_, which I enjoyed more than _Moon Palace_, and _Timbuktu_, a more popular work that makes for a good afternoon read.

Posted by: Jaroslav Bibo on April 9, 2005 12:49 PM

Haven't yet discovered Auster, but thanks for the recommendation. Cloud Atlas was an exceptional piece of work and a great excercise in literary voices for Mitchell; definitely my favorite read of the year so far!

Posted by: galetea on April 11, 2005 3:39 AM

I've read the new york trilogy, and Oracle Night, and scratched the surface of one or two other auster novels...

I can't say I agree with the folks above, as to the quality of his work. I did love "Smoke", and I think he has a fantastic skill at crafting a sentence, and quite often a paragraph, but the plot of his work has pretty much always left me irritable and completely cold to it. He seems to always write about writers, almost always in Brooklyn, and very often about the books they are writing, and inevitably a great deal of his work deals with difficult issues with fathers.

Enough already. It's as if he has one half-formed story that he does a sort of "Sears Cabinet Refacing" on every few years... not again, I've done my time.

Posted by: contrarian on April 11, 2005 12:05 PM

Don't forget his early essays. "The Art of Hunger" has some remarkable stuff in it.

And let me put my vote in for "Moon Palace" and "Leviathan". "The Music of Chance" is also entertaining and can be finished off in an afternoon.

Posted by: palinode on April 11, 2005 2:13 PM

I also recommend Moon Palace and if you have a chance Smoke is truly an excellent and very moving movie.

A small vote for the ladies though: Siri Hustvedt (Auster is her husband) is also a wonderful writer. If you have the time maybe you would like to give her "What I Loved" a go.

Cheers and good luck with the rest of the teeth.

Posted by: James on April 12, 2005 2:27 PM