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Something traumatic must have happened to Paul Auster and his wife, Siri Hustvedt, in the last year or so. I say this simply because they have both written the same story, or part of a story, not as the main thrust of their novel but as a violent intrusion into the world of the novel late in the course of the book. Those of you who read my piece on Hustvedt’s What I Loved a little while ago might recall that I lamented the melodrama when the son of a friend of the main character turns into a drug addict and thief tied up with a vicious crowd. Now, towards the end of Auster’s new novel, Oracle Night (Faber, 2004), the son of a friend of the main character is a drug addict and thief who commits a sudden act of outrageous violence against the narrator’s wife. Both Auster and Hustvedt transpose the event into the past, but because the two stories are so uncannily alike it feels recent. Auster’s handling of it is the more visceral, but less melodramatic; and I wonder if it is significant that the father of the criminal is the inevitable Auster-surrogate in the novel, here called Trause?

Other than that, Oracle Night is, for much of its length, one of the better of Auster’s novels, as good as Mr Vertigo or Leviathan (both of which I rate up there with his best), though in the end it is a book of trailing, unfinished stories, which means the book itself has an unfinished feel. It is narrated by a novelist, Stanley Orr, who lives, inevitably, in Brooklyn. Having suffered some sort of seizure bad enough that the doctors assumed he would not live, he has now finally come out of hospital. On one of his hesitant, recuperative walks around the neighbourhood he happens upon a new stationer’s shop, where he buys a blue notebook. Back home, he finds a new story coming to him which he writes in the notebook (so intensely is he engaged by this new story that when his wife, Grace, returns home he seems to have disappeared, one of several vaguely magical touches in the novel that are not developed). The story is of a man who walks away from his life and ends up in Kansas City, working with a retired taxi driver who collects telephone books as some sort of memorial for the victims of the concentration camps (this makes more sense in the novel than it does in any synopsis). The man was a publisher, and with him he carries the manuscript of a newly discovered novel by a noted author from between the wars; this novel, which is only very briefly synopsised, is called Oracle Night. When Orr manages to get his hero locked in the underground bunker where the collection of telephone books is stored, he finds himself unable to continue with the story. Curiously, his wife reports a dream which has almost the same plot as this abandoned novel. Next he writes a movie treatment for The Time Machine. Orr (and presumably Auster) does not rate The Time Machine highly: ‘a bad, awkwardly written piece of work, social criticism disguising itself as adventure yarn and heavy-handed on both counts’, so he rewrites it into a tale of two time travellers, one from the past and one from the future, who meet in Dallas in November 1963. The treatment is, not surprisingly, rejected.

All this while Orr is finding his wife acting strangely. Around the middle of the novel she informs him that she is pregnant, but seems disturbed by the prospect. Eventually, Orr uses the notebook to write a story which explains his wife’s behaviour: he imagines (and we are given no reason to doubt that this fiction is true, since the whole novel is about fiction turning into reality) that she had an affair with another writer, Trause, who had known her since she was a child and who is now Orr’s best friend. Having written the story, he tears up the notebook as if by so doing he is destroying the fiction’s chance of affecting reality. But in the moment of that destruction Trause dies as a result of deep vein thrombosis, and not long after Trause’s addict son attacks Grace causing her to lose the child.

And there it ends, and despite the fact that I think this is a wonderful novel (and I get more out of it the more I think about it) it still feels somehow unresolved…

First published at Livejournal, 25 February 2004.

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