Oracle Night by Paul Auster
This is superb. Really superb. His eleventh novel, and Oracle Night is as clever and compellingly written as any he has produced. The force of Auster's intelligence is obvious throughout but he is now a writer fully at ease with his craft: the structure is superficially complex but this is not a showy novel. Described somewhere as Escher-like (Auster's novels all build on his earlier works - references to his memoirs even occur here), so much so that a self-contained meta/inter-textual universe of Austerdom has now been built, these complexities/virtuosities need not divert the reader. No doubt, PhD students rub their hands with glee at the appearance of another Auster, but this is Raymond Chandler with a big brain, no guns but all the verve.
Sydney Orr is a writer recovering from an illness that almost killed him. Out on his daily constitutional he happens upon a curious stationery shop, the Paper Palace, and purchases a blue Portuguese notebook. It is the same rare notebook, he later realises, that his close friend, the writer John Trause, uses. Trause has encouraged him to begin writing again: indeed, to write up the Flitcraft episode from Dashiell Hammet's Maltese Falcon. The notebook casts a curious hold over Orr and seems to enable his writing to flow, something it hasn't done for a long while. Since coming out of hospital he has had a bad case of writer's block. Orr begins to write a story about a books' editor who, on serendipitously avoiding some falling masonry, a New York city gargoyle, decides to read the near-accident as a reason to change his life. He takes an unread, recently discovered, manuscript of an important writer from the thirties, Sylvia Maxwell, and disappears off to Kansas City.
Auster's usual themes are here: writing about writers and writing he discusses themes like identity, disappearance, creativity. But, despite what initially looks like a tricksy structure (with footnotes, and stories within stories), this is really a novel about love and forgiveness. And the humanity glows: Orr's wife Grace, if never quite fully realised as a character, holds sway over the novel as we know she does over Orr and his friend, her almost god-parent, Trause. Notwithstanding the dubious reputation of being a "writer's writer" the philosophical Auster has written a comparatively simple, very moving, quite brilliant novel. If the novel's ending is a little too neat, and the drama, as the narrative moves to a close, a little too soap opera, this hardly matters. This is a truly fine book - the best I've read so far this year - and a wonderful place to start reading one of America's greatest living novelists.