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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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Auster, Paul: Oracle Night

  Amazon  

5 stars

Writing twenty years after the fact, the narrator of Paul Auster's Oracle Night tells readers in detail about a nine-day period in his life, in 1982, that began with his purchase of a particular blue notebook, unusual for having been made in Portugal. The narrator, novelist Sidney Orr, is recovering from a near fatal illness at the time of the purchase, and he hasn't written anything for months, but the graph-paper pages of the notebook inspire him and he writes in it feverishly for hours on end, transported by the notebook such that he becomes wholly unaware of his surroundings. Sidney writes a story about a certain Nick Bowen, an editor at a successful publishing house who responds to a nearly fatal freak accident by abandoning his life and setting out to a randomly selected location, Kansas. He takes with him only what he happens to have been carrying, a manuscript of a previously unknown work--entitled Oracle Night--by a long dead novelist. Nick reads the manuscript repeatedly, and Sidney's would-be readers (and Auster's real-life readers) are told the story of this Oracle Night, that is, the novel within the story within Auster's novel.

Auster's Oracle Night, as the above suggests, is a Russian nesting doll of a novel. In addition to the principal stories mentioned above--Sidney's own story told twenty years hence, his short story, the novel within that story--other tales are slipped into the narrative--the reminiscences of various characters, stories told second-hand, Sidney's account of his courtship of his wife, delivered in footnotes. In some cases we are given cause to doubt the veracity of the stories, thus removing them that much further from the present "reality" in which narrator Sidney Orr is writing his account. (There is cause too, I think, for doubting Sidney's own story, which may be the point of the whole exercise.) What is remarkable about Auster's book, apart from this clever nesting of tales, is that each of the stories one encounters in the novel is so compelling, so vivid in the telling, even the brief ones, that one tends to forget while reading them that they are part of a larger whole. Written in deceptively simple prose, Auster's novel is a complex rumination on truth and storytelling, interesting enough to read in a single sitting, complicated enough to inspire late-night dorm room conversations about what he's really getting at.

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