Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Oracle Night by Paul Auster

I'm trying to be harsher in my ratings this year. Does that sound weird? But really...not every book is a four or a five. There's nothing wrong with an ok/good book receiving a three. Three is average. 

What's really difficult is reading a book by an author that you love and being completely unable to decide if you liked the book. That's me! Oracle Night is incredibly baffling and thought-provoking on a number of levels. It's a thinky novel, and I love those, but I couldn't help but feel let down at parts. 

Several months into his recovery from a near-fatal illness, novelist Sidney Orr enters a stationery shop in Brooklyn and buys a blue notebook 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. (via Goodreads)

Sydney Orr's writing and his mental journey are a mess because Orr is a mess after his injury and illness. He takes refuge in his blue notebook, feeling the thrill of writing for the first time after his recovery. I adored the sense of being swept away into his narrative. This is where things get "meta." It's quite confusing, and it's been a few weeks, so I borrowed this synopsis from the New York magazine website.
Inspired by a conversation with another novelist about an incident in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Sydney Orr begins a novel in his new blue notebook about an editor on whose desk is placed a long-lost novel by a forgotten writer named Sylvia Maxwell. It’s called Oracle Night and is about the complications that ensue after a World War I soldier loses his sight to a mortar shell but gains vision into the future. The editor, narrowly escaping a falling gargoyle on a West Village street, decides to start his life over, and ends up working for a man named Ed Victory (not his real name) who collects old phone books (yes, his real hobby) as a result of his experiences liberating Dachau, and ends up locked, “Cask of Amontillado”-style, in a converted bomb shelter in Kansas City. At which point, Orr—he’s the writer, remember?—gets writer’s block and shifts his attention to a screenplay of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, in hopes of paying off his medical bills.
This book has all the hallmarks of a Paul Auster work. A nested narrative, TONS of intertextuality, touches of hardboiled detective stories, a sense of mystery surrounding the author and the act of writing. When I started on Sydney Orr's journey with him, I was totally taken in by the idea of this writer getting so sucked into his notebook and the act of writing that he seemingly disappeared. Tidbits from the stories started to cross over into his real life. Wow! What a freaky concept! What a promise!

But what really comes about, and what really stuck with me, is that the author was so engulfed in his craft (see that long-ass synopsis about what he wrote) that he missed the details of his own life: his troubled wife, their troubled friends, trouble trouble trouble. Through a series of stories and false starts and brick walls and dead ends, the writer comes to emerge into his own life and he gets a clue. He connects with his wife and those troubled individuals around them. 

What seemed a bit of a let down in this book was the effort Auster put into Sydney Orr's stories. His forays into fiction that ultimately collapse and don't matter. Because Orr has bigger problems than writers block and people who won't buy his screenplays. His writing seemed like a false promise to the reader. A trip down the rabbit hole, as it were. And I suppose that's the point. Sometimes those forays and good feelings are not reality. We have to leave our plans behind to deal with our everyday. With the things that really matter.

See what I mean about this one being a thinky book? I'm still chewing over it. And I still don't know what to rate it--a hallmark of an admirable book, even if it frustrated me at times. 

Pub. Date: April 2009
Publisher: Picador
Format: Trade Paperback
ISBN: 0312428952
Source: Bought it!



26 comments:

  1. I just love all of Auster's books I have read so far and they always leave me thinking for weeks. It is actually hard for me to put into words what I like about them so much. I seldom have this with other books. As soon as I'm into the next book, I don't give much thought to the last one anymore. Even to the ones I like or rated with 4 or 5 stars.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They are incredibly thought-provoking. For me I think it's the mystery he injects and a sense of oddness and a looming uncertainty that I like so much.

      Delete
  2. In my experience, it's the books I have to chew over that wind up being favorites. It sounds to me like you loved it, but I guess we'll see in time, yes? Now I'm thinking I better go find me a copy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha! Yes, I'm starting to think I loved it too. But my first reaction was, "You bastard! You put me through all that just for this?"

      Delete
  3. I admit, I read this back in 2008 and hated it with a passion. One-star review. It's the only thing I've ever read by Auster and I have no desire to try something else. I had expected something more thinky, but it didn't really do anything for me at all. :( Maybe I just read it at the wrong time or something.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not his best work, for sure. I favor The New York Trilogy and his memoirs. His memoirs inform his fiction SOOO much. I'm usually not in favor of biographical criticism but there's just so much that translates interestingly (word!) from his life to his fiction.

      Delete
  4. I haven't been in the right frame of mind for a "thinky" novel for a while so this probably isn't for me right now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't either, though those are usually the ones that end up being more memorable. I've been picking up what I consider "easier" reads and I feel unfulfilled. #sniffle

      Delete
  5. Yes, sounds very thinky to me! Hmm..not sure if this would be a good book for me or not. I dig a good thinky book...most of the time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like his stuff a lot but this one wasn't WINNING in the same way The New York Trilogy and Man in the Dark were.

      Delete
  6. I'm with you on being harsher with my reviews - I feel like I'm too nice when it comes to books I hated. Ugh! Anyhow, this book by Auster sounds awesome!! I am so getting me a copy of it - I need a thinky book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Me too! It's just so...blarg! I don't really like looking back at the end of the year and seeing a sea of 4s and 5s. I hope you like this one! The New York Trilogy remains a fave.

      Delete
  7. One day I must read this author. Maybe not starting with this book!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He's super cool! Start with The New York Trilogy!

      Delete
  8. I haven't read Paul Auster yet. I love thinky books, though! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He's pretty stinking awesome even though this one rubbed me wrong in spots.

      Delete
  9. I liked this one quite a bit. I tend to enjoy the writer's stories within his own story concept but I agree that this is one of those books that is a bit brain bending. For me it fell somewhere between The New York Trilogy (I think I'm still confused) and In the Country of Last Things (which was pretty straightforward).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't read In the Country of Last Things yet, but I liked Man in the Dark which seems to be one of his straightforward novels. I also have The Brooklyn Follies I want to read this year.

      Delete
  10. I am already feeling thinky over your review, haven't even touched the book yet! haha. I've never read any of Auster's work, but it sounds pretty unique.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have read zero Auster. I hang my head in shame. (Sounds like I might want to start with one that isn't this though?)

    ReplyDelete
  12. I’ve never read this author but, like you, I want to be a bit stricter with my reviews. The problem is, as a reader, I tend to only pick up books I want to read…. which means they are usually better (for me), anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I had similar feelings reading this book... and in the end wasn't sure whether I liked it or not! The story within the story was interesting, but I was disappointed to see that it was then cast aside... Especially due to the length of it. I also got annoyed at Orr throughout the book because I thought he made so many bad decisions! It was very well written though and indeed makes you think...

    ReplyDelete
  14. I am so with you on this book! It felt, to me, like it was trying too hard to be esoteric and thinky and in the end, I couldn't connect.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I keep meaning to read Auster...yeah, one day. On a side note, I stopped rating because I kept giving everything a 4 or 5 as well.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Oh, I love Auster's writing. I don't always enjoy it, if that makes any sense, but I always find what he's written thought-provoking. Thinky, is one way to put it. Definitely that.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I felt the same way about this book! When I finished it I wasn't sure how I felt. It was actually my first Auster book so that was even more confusing!

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for taking the time to comment! Blogger has been a beast lately, so I hope you do not have any troubles leaving your thoughts.

 
Images by Freepik