Sunday, March 15, 2009

Oracle Night by Paul Auster

Paul Auster says of Oracle Night that it is ‘about love and forgiveness.’ It is also about words, their power, their danger. ‘Words can kill,’ a character decides at one point. Another collects telephone directories, their millions of words remembering the living and the dead, their assemblage acting as a ‘house of memory’. Remembrance perhaps, but words can also confuse, as Auster’s tangled narrative amply demonstrates. In true Shakespearean style, there are stories within stories here, and stories within stories within stories, complete with footnotes to provide additional detail, and a dizzying array of plotlines are interwoven with consummate skill. To what end, though, it is difficult to say. Auster is a clever, clever writer, but doesn’t he know it? Why make a point when you can make a postmodern point? Why articulate a theme when you can simply be mysterious? Smoke and mirrors, trickery, self-referential fun for all the family, but in the end surface overwhelms substance.

When Auster is on form he is brilliant. The Music of Chance is a superb novel, eerie, terrifying and driven. Parts of Oracle Night are very good, and it must be said it is a rattling read – you are driven on by Auster’s tremendous narrative brio – but the whole is significantly less than the sum of its parts. It simply does not stand up to scrutiny. In particular, the characterisation is woeful, with a bunch of solipstic, self-obsessed characters who never feel remotely real and whose apparent love for one another is inexplicable, given how loathsome and unloveable they are.

And, as is probably inevitable in such a Russian doll of a novel, some of the plots become contrived beyond breaking point. In particular, the scene where the main character is taken to a strip joint and ends up having a blow-job is excruciatingly awful – badly done, completely out of character, wholly improbable, written purely to advance the plot and reading, finally, like some middle-aged wank fantasy. In one of the plot strands, the main character – a writer – writes himself into a corner in his latest work and can’t get out of it. One feels the same thing overtook Auster in the writing of this novel.

The frustration is that it feels as though there is something important here. Auster wants to talk about love and compassion, and human – as opposed to religious – redemption. He takes us to places where human life has lost its meaning – Dachau, or a sordid bedsit in the Bronx – and wonders how the past can be harnessed to improve the present. Great stuff, an analysis of the Nietzschean struggle against ressentiment and affirmation of the moment, but the power of that is dissipated by the mass of plot which is wound round and round the theme like a tourniquet.

Wouldn’t it be good if Paul Auster would just sit down and tell a story, instead of WRITING one?

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