A blocked novelist lives through a labyrinthine challenge to his artistic conviction that “[t]here was no connection between imagination and reality,” in Auster’s teasing, tricky 11th novel.
Narrator Sidney Orr relates (in a text that includes detailed footnotes) a series of inexplicably connected events occurring in 1982, following a near-fatal illness for which he was hospitalized for months. Recovering slowly, Orr purchases a handsome blue notebook from a Brooklyn stationery store, and finds that possessing it stimulates him to devise a work based on a Dashiell Hammett story. It’s a dark fable of flight and captivity, containing within it a novel (entitled Oracle Night) whose theme will be the destructive effect of the gift of prophecy. In a spare style by now honed into an instrument of Nabokovian precision, Auster moves adroitly from Orr’s own “captivity” by the story he’s compelled to write to enigmatic real-life relationships with his pregnant (and, suddenly, mysterious) wife Grace, his older author friend and mentor John Trause (a longtime friend of Grace’s family), Trause’s sociopathic pothead son Jacob, and the elusive stationery-store proprietor Mr. Chang, who’s as affable and menacing as a Sax Rohmer villain. There’s also a subplot featuring black WWII veteran Ed Victory, who lives in a manner that pays explicit homage to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—oh, and an aborted screenplay for a remake of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, and a vintage Warsaw telephone directory. Much of this is quite entertaining, but the story’s pay, though fully explanatory, is disappointing. Too many loose narrative ends are left dangling, and the “mystery” of the blue notebook (which Orr pointedly describes as “a place of trouble for me”) is never confronted.
The urban intellectual thriller is Auster’s game, but he played it to superior effect in The Book of Illusions (2002). Oracle Night, fascinating as it is, is a lesser performance.