By Paul Auster
Henry Holt, 243 pp., $23
Let's get this straight. On January 12, 1982, 34-year-old Sidney Orr felt faint in the 14th Street subway station for no good (or given) reason. Then he fell down a flight of stairs, broke some bones, ruptured some internal organs, and suffered some head injuries, which resulted in neurological problems. Doctors gave Sidney up for dead, but Sidney didn't die. He returned to his apartment in Brooklyn in May "a lost man, an ill man" who had "trouble telling where [his] body stopped and the rest of the world began." Walls wavered. Objects dissolved. Sidney was "damaged goods." But he was on the mend. By mid-September, he was healthy enough to take short walks and better enough to get to work. His wife Grace, a graphic artist for Sidney's publisher, supported him. His friend the 56-year-old famed novelist John Trause counseled him. Sidney bought a fresh notebook -- blue, sturdy, made in Portugal -- in a Brooklyn shop called the Paper Palace, which was owned by a Chinese stationer who may or may not have once been a member of Mao's Red Guard. Sidney went home and got down to business: writing.
Borrowing from the tale told by Sam Spade to Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon, Sidney writes of a New York editor named Nick Bowen. He's married to Eva, but he's entranced by a young woman named Rosa Leightman. Rosa hands Nick a lost manuscript called Oracle Night by her dead novelist grandmother Sylvia Maxwell, Nick has a falling-out with Eva, Nick just misses being clobbered by a falling gargoyle, and Nick decides to abandon his life, gets on the first plane he can find, and meets a 67-year-old, chain-smoking cabbie named Ed Victory in Kansas City. Eva puts a stop to Nick's credit cards, so Nick takes up with Ed, who has put together what he calls a "Bureau of Historical Preservation" (consisting of decades-old U.S. and European phone books) and installed it beneath an abandoned stockyard. Eva is frantic with worry. Nick leaves phone messages for Rosa. Rosa is frantic with worry. Ed dies on a hospital operating table. And Nick gets locked inside Ed's bomb shelter. End of story. Never mind the short but equally preposterous story told in that manuscript of Rosa's. Meanwhile, back to Brooklyn ...
One day, Sidney was in his study working away in that notebook, but Grace said he wasn't when she looked for him. One day, the phone rang, but Sidney said it didn't, so why answer it? One night, Grace started weeping in a cab for no reason. Another day, Sidney wrote a screenplay idea based on H.G. Wells' The Time Machine to earn some of the $36,000 he owes in medical bills, but the producers rejected it as too confusing. Another day, Sidney ran into that Chinese guy drunk inside the White Horse Tavern (the Paper Palace closed days after it opened), and the stationer steered Sidney, also drunk, to a sweatshop in Brooklyn, where, in a back room turned brothel, Sidney met the "African Princess" (from Haiti), who gave him a blow job. Then Jacob, John's 20-year-old lost son, went to a rehab center for heroin addiction, and Sidney visited him. That same afternoon, Sidney discovered the new Manhattan location of the Paper Palace, but the Chinese guy threw him out. Then John gave Sidney a decades-old, unpublished short story of his to serve as the basis for another screenplay, but Sidney lost it on the subway. Then Grace disappeared after finding out she was pregnant, but she returned. Then Sidney and Grace's apartment got broken into. Then the burglar showed up again, and Grace got clobbered. On September 27, 1982, John, suffering from phlebitis, missed an important doctor's appointment and died but not before cutting his son out of his will. Then that son got murdered.
Paul Auster's 11th novel, Oracle Night, expects us to follow and care about a bit of this? Or is caring beside the point when your bigger concerns are cause, effect, reality, illusion, the writing process, authorship, coincidence, premonition, and time? Get lost early in these pages, and you'll stay lost, as lost as Sidney Orr. But read on. On page 42, you'll learn from Sidney that, unlike the rich red of blood ("the crimson of a mad artist"), "the other fluids that came out of us were dull in comparison, the palest of squirts. Whitish spittle, milky semen, yellow pee, green-brown mucus. We excreted autumn and winter colors ... ."