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!

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