Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.
I hailed Cloud Atlas as “the best book I’ve read in years.” For a week, at least. Then, seven days later, I finished Oracle Night by Paul Auster, and that novel usurped the “best book” title. I’d never heard of Auster before, but after mentioning my admiration for the novel to some friends, they replied knowingly that he’s one of the best in the business. I’ll have to read a few more tomes by the guy to determine if I agree with that assessment, but I was certainly taken with the the way Night was written.
The story is set in 1982, with protagonist Sidney Orr recovering from a near-fatal illness. An author by trade, Orr has been unable to muster the energy or inspiration to write during his recuperation. But his muse returns in force after Orr wanders into a paper store and purchases a mysterious blue notebook. Here the focus of Night shifts to the story-within-the-story, as it devotes several dozen pages to describing the narrative that Orr is jotting in his notebook. From this point on the novel switches back and forth between Orr’s reality and the fiction he is penning (and sometimes even to stories within Orr’s story), and curious parallels between the two begin to emerge. That an author’s work would mirror his own life is of course unsurprising, but the stories that Orr writes in his blue notebook are not only reflective of his past, but, in some cases, also eerily predictive of his future. In fact, soon after he resumes his craft, Orr’s life becomes as convoluted and intriguing as that of the characters he’s created.
Oracle Night is written in first-person, as if in a journal or a letter to a friend, with Orr relating the tale several decades after the events occur. This informal tone makes the book feel unusually intimate. Though the story is rife with odd coincidences and forces that appear to be borderline supernatural, we understand that Orr is providing us with an honest — albeit subjective — account of the events, and that he has no more insight into the strange occurrences than the reader does. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the unresolved ambiguities in Night, whereas I criticized Cloud Atlas for same. Night is like a ghost story told to you by a friend — you don’t know whether to believe every element of the tale, you only know that he believes them all. And this aspect adds yet another layer to a book that already has more levels than a parking garage.
One thing I disliked: the book is infested with copious footnotes, some of which run for several pages. I guess they were intended to further the illusion that Orr was providing us with as full an account as possible, but they only served to pull me away from the main story and send me off on tangents. And I didn’t have the willpower to simply not read them. Aside from that, though, I thought Oracle Night was fantastic, and I look forward to reading more by Auster. If his other novels are as good as this, I’m sure I too will be raving about him in the near future.