Monday 7 December 2009

'the past is of no importance'

Oracle Night
by Paul Auster

Whilst everyone else has been tucking into Auster's latest, Invisible, I felt I needed a little primer first. It has been a long time since I read (and loved) The Book Of Illusions and even longer since I first tackled The New York Trilogy and Leviathan. Auster is a writer who returns to similar themes, using similar tricks and techniques, so that when you are in the loop and into it each successive book develops on the one before it to give the reader another satisfying dose of playful fiction. Out of the loop however Austerland can be a pretty unforgiving place but receiving this book as a gift came at just the right time, almost as if it was meant to be, and if you've ever read a word of Auster then you'll understand the significance of that.

Many of Auster's familiar tropes are here: writers writing, chance, meta-fiction, stationary, yes - stationary; in fact stationary might just be the most important element of this novel. Writer Sidney Orr is slowly recovering from a near-fatal illness when he pops into the Paper Palace stationary shop and buys a blue notebook from Portugal on a whim. Why this particular notebook should draw him to itself or indeed why he has never before noticed this particular shop on his many walks around the neighbourhood is all part of the mystery but
he finds himself encouraged by this purchase alone to begin writing again, taking as his inspiration the tale of Flitcraft, a small character from Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. It is something he had discussed previously with friend, and fellow writer John Trause (anag. Auster). In Orr's version successful editor Nick Bowen is almost crushed by a falling gargoyle and undergoes a similar realisation to Flitcraft: that life is governed by chance, he has been given a second chance at his own and with that and the recently discovered manuscript by 1930's writer Sylvia Maxwell (called Oracle Night) he walks away from his life and gets on a plane to Kansas City. The book we are reading is made up as much of Sidney's writing as his own tale and that's before we even go in to the plot of Maxwell's Oracle Night in which Bowen 'begins o see a connection between himself and the story in the novel, as if in some oblique, highly metaphorical way, the book were speaking intimately to him about his own present circumstances.' This is important because of course whilst all this is going on Orr is struggling to recognise the crisis unfolding in his own life, in his own marriage, and the echoes from each text rebound and rebound until Orr has to question whether he has made things happen in his own life by writing about them in his fiction.

Blimey, that was a bit of a paragraph, wasn't it? That's Auster for you. I'd forgotten how he does that with his plots and what a stimulating writer he is. It's no wonder that he is so beloved by other writers whilst at the same time seen by some to be far too self-reverential. Personally I think there's a lot to be said for the novel that combines the excitement of the thriller, with the analysis of a far more philosophical book, with a dash of eroticism thrown in occasionally. the transformative power of the act of writing is so vividly imagined here when Orr visits the apartment of his friend Trause, the apartment he has been using as his template for Nick Bowen's in his fevered writing.

I had visited Trause's apartment countless times in the past, but now that I had spent several hours thinking about it in my own apartment in Brooklyn, peopling it with the invented characters of my story, it seemed to belong as much to the world of fiction as to the word of solid objects and flesh-and-blood human beings.

Having been at home writing about this imagined apartment he now finds himself in the actual apartment imagining himself writing about it back at home, a kind of 'double consciousness.'

I was there, fully engaged in what was happening, and at the same time I wasn't there - for there wasn't an authentic there anymore. It was an illusory place that existed in my head, and that's where I was as well. In both places at the same time. In the apartment and in the story. In the story in the apartment that I was still writing in my head.

Given the nature of both the novel's plot and that of the book within the book (and the book within that) the energy is always moving forwards. In his work, in his marriage, Orr is always looking forwards, failing to learn from or look properly at what has lead up to the present moment, which contributes to that sense of the thriller or detective novel and keeps your brain ticking over nicely as Auster/Orr/Bowen/Flagg feel there way around the developing plot. However, by allowing Orr to improvise his writing as we read he ends up taking us down a narrative dead-end - all very ironic and post-modern (and he does make use of it) but it does make you feel at times that Auster could literally do this in his sleep. This is a small niggle though, especially at what is only playfulness. Despite the big themes and ideas that his work explores Auster is just as happy to stick a pin in any pretensions to meaning. As Trause explains to Orr when talking about that seductive blue notebook (you stationary-lovers out there know what I mean).

'It's funny, but when I looked over the pile this morning, I went straight for the blue myself. I felt drawn to that one, as if I couldn't resist it. What do you think that means?'
'It doesn't mean anything, Sid. Except that you're a little off in the head. And I'm just as off as you are. We write books don't we? What else can you expect from people like us?'


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