Be careful what you wish for

Oracle Night by Paul Auster

Faber and Faber, 15.99

On 28 August, 1938, the Romanian painter, Victor Brauner, lost his left eye when he was struck by a glass thrown by fellow surrealist Oscar Dominguez. Such violence was not uncommon at parties attended by the surrealist group, but what distinguished this episode was the fact that it seemed to fulfil a prophecy, begun seven years before when Brauner painted the first of a series of canvases (Self-Portrait with a Plucked Eye), in which he was depicted as having suffered various injuries, all affecting the left eye.

In one, Brauner’s eye has disappeared; in another, it seems to have melted and is running down his cheek; in yet another, the eyeball has shattered in its socket. The surrealists made much of the incident, claiming it proved the magical, premonitory power of art and, though Brauner himself played it down, he is best-known, even now, as the painter who foresaw his own partial blinding.

It is a story that might have been invented by Paul Auster. Throughout his career Auster has engaged with the complex and bewildering play between chance, reason, fear and desire that underlies the human predicament. It is never a simple matter yet, in novel after novel, this play is exposed in a series of accidents, coincidences, apparently irrational decisions and shock moments of premonition - or wish-fulfilment - that cast new light on our ideas of chance, free will and destiny. What Auster does is challenge our most basic assumptions about what human beings need from life, what we really feel is right and just, and how even the most fleeting and apparently negligible perceptions can decide our fate.

Right action is central to this challenge: more often than not, a character who has been going along, doing what is expected of him - doing what he expects from himself - suddenly changes direction and enters a personal limbo, abandoning everything that is familiar, everything that has seemed logical, everything that he has chosen, or that has been foisted upon him, until that moment. In Leviathan, a superb meditation on politics and individual responsibility published in 1992 (when the Unabomber was still at large - and just in time for the anniversary of Columbus’s "discovery" of America), a writer named Sax suddenly abandons literature and travels the length and breadth of America, blowing up models of the Statue of Liberty, in what seems, at first, a futile protest against state corruption.

In an earlier work, The Music of Chance, Auster gave us Nashe, an ex-fireman who drops out of his ordinary life and begins driving aimlessly around the country until he and a feckless con-man named Pozzi fall into the clutches of a pair of (seemingly) demented recluses living on a huge estate in rural Pennsylvania. There, they are forced into a long period of hard labour, building a huge, useless wall, until they have paid off a gambling debt. Even earlier, Moon Palace is the tale of a young man named Marco Fogg who gradually sells his possessions (a vast collection of books he has inherited from a favourite uncle), drops out of college and begins living rough in Central Park. It is the first step in a process that will reveal to him his true history and send him out on a strange journey into the American West, where he may or may not find his redemption.

In these novels Auster’s characters are faced with an existential choice: follow the dictates of convention, or allow the irrational, unpredictable, dangerous inner self to guide them on their path through life - a choice, as it were, between the inner and the outer self, between constructed person and imagining soul. What they are looking for, in Thomas Merton’s words, is a thunderclap, "just startling enough to create a sudden awareness, a self-realisation in which the false, exterior self is caught in all its naked nothingness and immediately dispelled as an illusion. Not only does it vanish, but it is seen never to have been there at all - a pure fiction, a mere shadow of passionate attachment and of self-deception."

What makes Auster’s earlier work so powerful for the reader is the recognition that this exterior self, this illusion, is the person with whom each of us lives, day to day, a figure concocted by convention, socialisation and the imaginings of other such persons. When one of his characters breaks through this false self, it is a liberation - even if that character is left wandering in the desert, mourning a dead lover or friend, or dead. In this sense, Auster’s work operates on the same basis as tragedy does: as catharsis.

Auster’s brilliant and harrowing new work, Oracle Night, takes up this problem of the real and the conventional self, but extends it - on a philosophical level - somewhat further. The novel begins with Sidney Orr, a writer in mid-career who has recently suffered an unspecified life-threatening illness. Sidney is married to a beautiful woman named Grace, a woman he feels, at times, that he does not deserve (but then, none of us is deserving of grace, we must simply accept it when it comes).

As the novel opens, Sidney is emerging from his illness and, inspired by the chance discovery of a magical blue notebook in a local stationery shop, has begun to write again. At first he is happy with this turn of events - after his long illness he needs money and hopes the work he is doing will bring it in - but soon the book begins to exert a strange power over him. His imagined world begins spilling over into everyday reality in subtle and surprising ways, his behaviour alters, he has frightening premonitions and - to his horror - it seems that what he writes is translating into actual events.

"Thoughts are real," his friend and fellow-writer John Trause tells him: "Words are real. Everything human is real and 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."

It is a terrifying problem for an artist, not only because, like Brauner, he may cause something untoward to happen to himself, but because he may cause suffering to others. Oracle Night has its own version of the Brauner story, an anecdote that Trause tells Orr about a French writer who "published a book-length narrative poem that revolved around the drowning of a young child. Two months after the book was released, the writer and his family went on a vacation to the Normandy coast and on the last day of their trip his five-year-old daughter waded out into the choppy waters of the English Channel and drowned."

Premonition, cruel coincidence - or magical influence? There is no way of knowing, as there is no way of knowing the consequences of any of our imaginings. Children will superstitiously work through the imagined death of a parent as a way of warding off that evil - but is there also an element of wish-fulfilment there? What does a man, married to the woman of his dreams, really feel when he imagines her leaving him, or having an affair with his best friend? What is the purpose of fantasy? What are the uses of the imagination?

The problem of Romantic literature - which extends right through Surrealism to the Beat Generation - was the belief, most succinctly expressed by Man Ray, that "everything is permitted to the imagination". Oddly enough, this belief is only made possible by Enlightenment rationalism, a non-magical system that subsists on the notion that imagination is a purely mental phenomenon, that fantasy only happens inside the head. The worst error that a human being can make is to believe that he or she possesses an individual destiny, a fixed self and purpose that can exist in the world as a singular and independent thing. In Oracle Night, Auster exposes this error and allows us to see, as Jean Baudrillard has remarked, that there is no such thing as individual destiny, that each of us is the destiny of the other. By this reckoning, each of us is also the responsibility of the other; or rather, we are all equally responsible for the destiny of all and that responsibility extends, not only to what we say and do but to what we imagine.

Yet artists must imagine and they must believe that their imaginings have some effect in the world. Brauner was one of that group of surrealists who believed art and magic were inseparable. This is an old belief, as ancient, perhaps, as art itself and may be the very basis of human culture: human beings tell stories, not merely to entertain or deceive one another but because they face a perpetual and, at times, urgent need to remake and renew the world in which they live. This magical art is not just a matter of cave dwellers luring prey into their traps, or placating dysfunctional gods; indeed, art as magic is as urgent now, in our mass culture, as it has ever been. In a consumerist society, conventions have become limits; what we call reality has dulled; alien commercial and political structures militate against spiritual and intellectual growth.

In such a climate, our best artists seek other - and more rigorous - roads to freedom than those offered by self-help books and the entertainment business, and those roads are necessarily difficult, unpredictable and even harrowing, yet they are the only means by which, moment by moment, we save our souls. In the case of Sidney Orr, the way is hard but at the end he is able, both in the literal and the metaphorical sense, to accept Grace. This is what makes Oracle Night such a great novel, as fine as anything this genius of a writer has ever imagined, and then some.

Auster is an essential novelist and this is an essential book. It should not be missed.

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