Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Wednesday Review - Oracle Night

This is the second book by Auster that I've read.  I had really enjoyed Mr Vertigo as a teenager and was looking forward to immerse myself in his strange creation. 

The story of Oracle Night is like a Russian doll. We meet Sidney, an author recovering from a near fatal illness.  He hasn't written in months when he finds a Portuguese blue notebook in a small stationary store.  He feels compelled to start writing again.  We then follow the story of Nick Bowen, who's been given the task of editing a recovered manuscript from a deceased famous author.  This story is also outlined.  In short, it's a story about a man writing a story about a man reading a story.  The premise is really interesting. 

However, as Sydney starts writing in the notebook, things start to fall apart in the real world.  Weird things happen to him.  There seems to be something magical about the notebook.  Something prophetic.  The things he writes start influencing his life, in a bad way.

"Thoughts are real," he said. "Words are real.  Everything human is real, and sometimes we know things before they happen, even if we aren't aware of it. We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment.  Maybe that's what writing is all about, Sid.  Not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future."

This is probably the quote that sums up the book the best.  This really is what Oracle night is about.  As a writer, it really appealed to me.  I like the idea because it reflects one of the beliefs I have about words and their power.

Auster's prose is rich and he seems to favour the rule of three; most descriptions always contain three elements.  His vocabulary is extensive which, combined with the rule of three, contributes to a very vivid and precise depiction of the characters thoughts and moods.  I must confess that I had to consult the dictionary a few times.  Aside from that (which probably only is an issue because I'm not a native English speaker,) the book was fairly easy to read.  

Footnotes.  What can I say?  Auster makes usage of footnotes to add incidental background information about the characters.  Basically, each one of them is a gigantic parenthesis, an explanation of something that does nothing to make the story move forward.  I wouldn't have minded if they had been short, but some of them were three pages long and made for half of the pages, making me go back and forth.  They hindered the flow of the story and annoyed me to the utmost.  I believe the only reason he pulled it off is because he's a famous, establish writer.  If I were to send a manuscript like that to an editor, they wouldn't even bother reading it.

I really liked that Auster set his story in the early eighties.  It was refreshing to read about a world where technology was not yet pervasive.  I think it is a perfect context for the story because it is a time where books (newspaper, magazines, etc) were the only other intellectual distraction, aside from radio and TV, that you could enjoy at home.  It is a world before the Internet and printed words still have a part of mysticism.

The three main characters of the story, Sidney, his wife Grace and their friend John, are well rounded.  However, there are too many others who seem to serve little or no purpose. All the characters Sid creates, completely abandoned mid story, for example, why even bother creating such detailed descriptions if you're only to leave the reader wanting more? Or M.R. Chang, who sells Sid the notebook; he comes back later in the story and takes Sid to an underground brothel, eventually leading to them having a fight.  This could have been entirely skipped.  I do understand that they serve to illustrate the prophetic nature of the notebook, that whatever Sid writes about them, has a direct correlation with what happens in his life after, but I thought it was way too elaborate.  I concede, however, that the pacing was good and that every time I was close to getting bored with one character, Auster skillfully skipped to another one.

Eventually, a few of the loose ends came together but we never get to know for sure what the deal was about the notbook, which was kind of a let down. I was expecting more.

ATUA's verdit: Meh


  1. Isn't it interesting how established authors get away with writing (eg. footnotes in fiction!) that would get an unknown, new writer's manuscript thrown out the window? Stuff like this just underlines the commercial publisher's false premise of being a gatekeeper for quality writing.

  2. There is definitely a bias once you have a foot in the door and your previous work has sold well.