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Book Review: Oracle Night

October 23rd, 2008

oracle-night-review.jpgThis article by Phil Copple is a review of the book Oracle Night, a novel by Paul Auster that may be of interest to other authors because it explores issues relating to the writing process and the ways in which fictional writing in particular can actually affect us. If you would like to check out other reviews at Amazon.com or perhaps purchase the book, simply click on the cover image in the upper left of the page.

In Oracle Night Auster returns to a theme that fascinates him — that of writers and the process of writing. More than this, the book explores the questions of how and why to write, and how fiction can affect our lives.

Auster’s protagonist, Sidney Orr, was a struggling novelist before being struck down by an illness that should have taken his life. Despite the predictions of the doctors Orr survives, but is left a weakened shell of a man, barely able to leave his apartment. The novel starts several months into Orr’s recovery, when the reader is informed of his habit of taking small walks every day, walks which speed his recuperation. Whilst Orr still has his life, his ability to write has left him, meaning that his wife Grace is their sole provider.

It is on one of these walks that the primary tale of Oracle Night begins, when Orr discovers a small stationery shop. Within this shop, the ‘Paper Palace’, Orr is irresistibly drawn to a selection of Portuguese notebooks: ‘I knew I was going to buy one the moment I picked it up and held it in my hands’. The power of these notebooks is referenced again in Oracle Night, as Orr’s friend John Trause admits his love for them. Trause, however, adds a darker element to the notebook by warning Orr to be careful with it as it wields its own power.

It is, however, an insult to Auster to suggest that any of the stories, which layer the novel, are primary. Within Oracle Night, the purchase of the notebook causes a flood of stories to pour from Orr, piling up upon the pages whilst footnotes proliferate beneath them. These footnotes catch the reader up on the narrative before the illness whilst Orr (and Auster) forge ahead. Oracle Night is a novel within a novel, with light shed upon Sidney’s past whilst he attempts to create a future through the notebook.

Despite the obvious intelligence of Auster, this deluge of stories can have the effect of confusing the reader, as they have to try to piece together which strands of the narrative relate to which characters. With the plethora of persons portrayed in Oracle Night this can be increasingly difficult, and it is this difficulty that can rob the novel of some of its emotional power.

At the heart of Oracle Night lies the fear of entrapment. Orr needs to start writing again to feel free, to know that he still has his skills. He fears that his writing career has slipped away and that only the notebook can retrieve it. However, what emerges from its pages is not freedom but claustrophobia and death. Worse than this is the effect that these tales have on Orr’s own life. The notebook serves as the main device throughout the novel to reintroduce what appears to be Auster’s main question — does fiction foretell or limit the future?

One Response to “Book Review: Oracle Night”

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