Trapped in a Novelist’s Mind-A Dreary, Airless Experience

Oracle Night , by Paul Auster. Henry Holt, 243 pages, $23.

Remember the moment early on in The Great Gatsby when Daisy tells Nick how cynical she’s become? “Sophisticated,” she says, “God, I’m sophisticated!” Nick doesn’t buy it: “The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me.”

I feel the same way about Oracle Night , Paul Auster’s new novel. Though I was at times happily carried along by various storylines (it’s all about narrative nestled in narrative, like a Russian doll), whenever I put the book down, even for an instant, I had the disagreeable sense that I was being tricked. The novel seems to me basically insincere.

Can a novel be insincere? Does it make any sense to talk about the sincerity of fiction? Isn’t it always a trick devised to compel attention and belief? Isn’t Emma Bovary just Gustave Flaubert in drag? These are the kinds of questions Paul Auster, like any good champion of the postmodern novel, prompts us to ask; and if our ambition is to become sophisticated novel readers, we’d better come up with some answers. (Let’s leave aside the question of whether we should in fact aspire to sophistication.)

Oracle Night is the story of Sidney Orr, a Brooklyn novelist who, having slowly recovered from a serious injury, begins to write in a new blue notebook. Over the course of the next few weeks, his marriage threatens to fall apart, death claims one man, violent death another, and a woman is brutally beaten. What do these awful events have to do with a blue notebook manufactured in Portugal and bought in a curious Cobble Hill stationery store? Spooky parallels between what Sidney writes and what happens in his life suggest that the book exerts a kind of “black magic”; it begins to seem possible that whatever Sidney sets down in the book becomes oracular.

Sidney suffers from a variety of bizarre symptoms-including spontaneous, copious nosebleeds, dizziness and disorientation-which sound like physical manifestations of existential malaise. “I drifted along like a spectator in someone else’s dream,” he tells us. He’s been sick, but we don’t know why. He’s vaguely sad, but we don’t know why. The blue notebook, which reawakens his urge to write, offers him a glimmer of hope.

The idea behind the novel Sidney begins to write in the pages of his new notebook is borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon , from an anecdote Sam Spade tells about a man Flitcraft who’s nearly killed by a falling beam. Spared by blind luck-he was inches from death-Flitcraft decides on the spot that the world is random and absurd, that his sane, orderly existence is a sham. So he skips out on his wife and children, utterly abandons the life he’s been living.

Sidney’s nascent novel is about Nick Bowen, an editor at a New York publishing house. Out for a late-night walk, troubled by the strains in his marriage, Nick is nearly killed by the head of a limestone gargoyle that falls from a building’s 11th story, grazes Nick’s arm and smashes to the sidewalk. Nick feels he should by all rights be dead; like Flitcraft, he realizes at once that his old life is finished and that he must begin a new one. Nick hops a cab to LaGuardia, catches the next flight to Kansas City, a random destination.

Sidney’s novel could be a good one, I suppose, but as it stands it’s just the sketch of a premise-and a multipurpose literary device. It tells us in an oblique way about Sidney’s predicament, and it reminds us, insistently, that there’s another writer at work here: Paul Auster sits in a room writing about Sidney Orr sitting in a room writing about Nick Bowen-who ends up locked in a vault in an underground bunker filled with thousands of old telephone books, reading an unpublished novel he was meant to edit in his old life. Yes, it’s a bit airless, claustrophobic even, when you’re trapped inside a writer’s imagination.

As George Eliot would say, “These things are a parable.”

But something in a novel has to be real and true, verifiable on a gut level, even if that something is only the writer’s ambition to make the book come alive. In Oracle Night , the touchstone should be Sidney’s love for his wife Grace. (The first time he saw her, he tells us, “the blow to the brain left me paralyzed, unable to draw my next breath.”) I don’t believe in Sidney Orr, and I don’t believe in his marriage. I don’t care about him, and I don’t believe that Mr. Auster cares about him. The author is just playing with words, toying with character, plot and setting.

Here the promoter of the postmodern is likely to ask how an author can possibly care about a character, a fictional construct delineated by a sequence of marks on a page. And the same exculpatory logic can be usefully applied to any aspect of the text. For instance, a snippet of inane, wooden dialogue can be excused on the grounds that it subverts the artificial (wooden, inane) convention of “dialogue” between “characters.” In Oracle Night , a young wife announces to her husband that she’s pregnant and then says, “We’ve always talked about having kids but this seems like the worst possible moment.” Who speaks like that? Sounds like Al Gore faking intimacy.

Sidney remembers a conversation he once had with a friend-a fellow novelist, in fact-about the predictive power of fiction. The friend said he believed that written words could “alter reality,” and that “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.”

Ideally, yes. But a novel is unlikely to make things happen, to have impact on a reader’s life, if the characters are just phony stick figures deployed to illustrate literary and philosophical concepts.

There aren’t many really good novels about writing novels, but there is a recent one that’s strong in precisely the ways that Oracle Night is weak: Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2002) plunges the reader into a succession of eerily convincing worlds-an English country house in 1935, the British retreat to Dunkirk in 1940, and a London hospital coping with the casualties of Dunkirk evacuation. Though we eventually learn that the story we’re reading is fiction within the fiction-a novel written by one of the characters as an act of atonement-the storytelling is so completely successful that the reader experiences a metaphysical shock upon discovering that the story told in the novel is “untrue.”

Mr. Auster has lately become addicted to gimmicks: a boy who can fly in Mr. Vertigo (1994), a dog who can narrate in Timbuktu (1999) and now a sinister magic notebook. But the only gimmick a good novelist needs is the trick of telling a story so that it compels our attention and our belief. The rest is just sophistication.

Adam Begley is books editor of The Observer .