Sunday, April 11, 2004

The oracle's ghosts

You might think I've been reading myself into a frenzy this last week or so. Time melted a little to accommodate me. Oracle Night, by Paul Auster, is all of 243 pages. I nibbled away at it over days, taking the time, taking walks even, to fully digest what I read.

The oracle of the title is Lemuel Flagg, a man blinded by a mortar explosion but left with the gift of prophecy. He is the main personage of a lost/found manuscript, said to be uncharacteristic of the author's usual work, given to Nick Bowen, the Flitcraft-inspired* protagonist of a story Sidney Orr starts writing in his new blue notebook.

The future and past, as well as all the presents of others around us, are already known within us, within objects and relationships, within our interactions with them. The trick is how to unlock them.

In every relationship there are ghosts. Not just the obvious memory-of-past-lovers kind of ghosts. Those too, but also the fragments we pick up in our individual lives and unconsiously carry with us into a relationship. All relationships. Not just lovers. Friends, family, colleagues, even the non-relationship with the stranger at the coffeeshop. Who himself becomes a ghost I carry home with me to J-F. The event of the coffeeshop, too, is a kind of ghost — a non-secret non-event that has imprinted itself on me.

I'm mad at Paul Auster for this. He writes about the ghosts. When not writing about the ghosts he's more sharply delineating a piece of character, emphasizing the space in which the ghosts move. He has made me aware of my own ghosts. I've always known them, but in reading Paul Auster these last weeks I feel compelled to face them. Confront my demons, so to speak. Face the past. Really look at the empty spaces between us, and know how full they are.

Writers write what they know, and Paul Auster knows about being a writer. Once again this is the profession of the main character. On one level, Auster's books are a puzzle of actual biographical detail. In City of Glass we meet a character, a writer, by the name of Paul Auster. In The Locked Room, the wife is Siri, as in real life. Characters who lived and worked in France. Writer characters who wrote screenplays to make ends meet. Characters who live in Brooklyn.

Sidney, Oracle Night's narrator, addresses how he creates the characters of his story. The woman was modelled on his own wife "down to her smallest, most idiosyncratic features."

As for Bowen, however, I expressly made him someone I was not, an inversion of myself. I am tall, and so I made him short. I have reddish hair, and so I gave him dark brown hair, I wear size eleven shoes, and so I put him in size eight and a half.

So not only do the books within his books blur into the main narrative, the whole of it blurs with real life. Here, the narrator does a few things I don't approve of, and for this reason I like Paul Auster as a person just a little bit less. (It's always bothered me that my mother likes actors based on the movie characters they play, failing to distinguish between the personality or morality they portray on screen and the able execution of their craft. Now I'm guilty too.) Of course, I know we are all of us complex creatures embodying good and evil and everything in between, facing complex situations that have no black and white resolutions. But for the moment, my god has fallen, just a little.

Paul Auster pulls off a really neat trick of prose: it's cold, analytical, removed, yet at the same time intensely personal and private. Consciousness is the filter that both diffuses and focuses the experience.

*In The Maltese Falcon, . . . Sam Spade, is a loner whose audacity and individualism are the product of a thoroughgoing distrust of conventional social arrangements and familiar pieties. Spade's cynical sense of the world is epitomised in the story he tells Brigid of the strange affair of Flitcraft, who abandons his perfectly ordinary family life after he has nearly been killed by a falling beam: this exposure to life's randomness leads Flitcraft to leave behind his orderly existence, and to drift off, until, when Spade eventually finds him, he has adjusted himself to beams not falling and is now leading more or less the same kind of life he did before, with an ordinary job and a suburban family – again the good citizen, husband and father. As the teller of the parable, Spade confirms his position as the one character in the novel who grasps the absurdity that lies under all ways of ordering the world and giving it value. He knows that life is not “a clean, orderly, responsible affair” and accepts that men do die “at haphazard”, and in his dealings with others he acts accordingly: “my way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery.”

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