ENG441b: Contemporary American Literature, Fiction
Prof. E. Joy
19 March 2008                           

Cutting the Knot of Oracle Night

Figure 1. Gordian Knot flash art

Oracle Night, by Paul Auster, presents a Gordian knot of narratives; a complex, twisting, tangled mass of stories, tales within tales within tales, footnoted by more tales.  At first glance, this knot appears impossible to undo, leaving the reader frustrated and confused.  A common thread unites the tales, however, allowing the narrative knot to be cut, if not untangled.  The central theme of the multiple narratives of Oracle Night is the universal human experience of loss in all of its many dimensions.

Auster’s complex narrative of loss turns on the fulcrum of the main character, Sid Orr.  As the novel opens, Sid struggles with the loss of his identity.  After a near death experience, he is hesitantly groping his way back to life, trying to reestablish himself as a writer and a husband.  He is “a lost man, an ill man, a man struggling to regain his footing” (223).  The Portuguese notebook serves as a magical talisman for Sid, helping him to write once more.  Using the notebook, he quickly develops the story of Nick Bowen, a character inspired by the tale of Flitcraft, from The Maltese Falcon (13).  Unlike Sid, whose loss of identity was involuntary, Nick chooses to lose his own identity.  After a near brush with death, Nick walks away from his old life, abandoning wife, job, and all established contacts (26).  The process of writing this story allows Sid to explore his own identity issues.

Loss is threaded throughout the narrative in a number of ways.  Nick Bowen loses his keys, which results in his entombment in Ed Victory’s secret underground bomb shelter (103).  John Trause’s brother-in-law, Richard, loses the ability to revisit the past when his 3-D photograph viewer breaks, an event that is emotionally devastating for him: “the marvelous thing he’d discovered had been taken away from him for good.  It was a catastrophic loss, the cruelest of deprivations” (39).  Sid loses the story that Trause entrusts to him, dropping it on the subway and leaving it to be “trampled and smudged by half the shoes and sneakers in the borough of Brooklyn” (171).  Even worse, he returns to his apartment to find that his most valuable possessions have been lost to a burglar (172).   John Trause bemoans the loss of his son, Jacob, an angry and addicted young man he can no longer trust (159).  Ironically, he also cautions Sid against losing Grace (163).

The most serious type of loss, loss of life, is featured repeatedly in Auster’s tale.  Nick Bowen, protagonist of Sid’s story, is left abandoned and alone, almost certainly doomed to a horrifying end after the death of quixotic taxi-driver Ed Victory (105).  Novelist John Trause dies at a relatively young age, killed by a pulmonary embolism (230).  Jacob, Trause’s violent son, is shot twice in the head and dropped into a dumpster (242).  Most tragically, babies and children die; the baby in the concentration camp (92), the baby in the newspaper story (112), and the drowned French child (220).  The loss of these youngest and most vulnerable lives foreshadows the loss of Grace’s unborn child (237).

The most significant losses in the novel, however, relate to the loss of innocence.  Sometimes Auster depicts this loss on a global level by having a character brutally encounter the dark side of humanity.  Ed Victory had such an experience when he helped to liberate Dachau during World War II.  “I saw the end of all things, Lightning Man.  I went down into the bowels of hell, and I saw the end.  You return from a trip like that, and no matter how long you go on living, a part of you will always be dead” (91).  Sid has a similar experience when he reads the newspaper story about the baby born in a toilet. “It was hard enough to absorb the information about the baby, but when I came to the stabbing incident in the fourth paragraph, I understood that I was reading a story about the end of mankind, that that room in the Bronx was the precise spot on earth where human life had lost its meaning” (115).  The mysterious M. R. Chang also relates a bitter tale of disillusionment: “I get my big American dream in China, but there is no dream in America.  This country is bad too.  Everywhere the same.  All people bad and rotten.  All countries bad and rotten” (143).

At other times, however, Auster portrays the loss of innocence as painfully personal.  Lemuel Flagg, the protagonist of the fictional novel Oracle Night (which is being read by Nick Bowen in Sid’s story), sees a vision of the future on the night before his wedding.  Unable to cope with his wife’s eventual unfaithfulness, he commits suicide (62).  The main character of John Trause’s story “The Empire of Bones” is also betrayed by an unfaithful wife, leaving him, according to Trause, “’ruined by his own innocence’” (169).  These sequences set the stage for Sid’s personal loss of innocence.  Piecing together the enigmatic events of the past few days, he realizes that his wife has been emotionally and physically involved with John Trause for a number of years, and that Trause might be the father of Grace’s child (212). 

Auster even manages to carry the theme of loss out of the pages of the book, allowing the reader to experience loss personally.  Sid Orr, from a distance of twenty years, is narrating for the reader events that occurred to him during a crucial nine-day period in 1982.  Though he does reveal the death of Grace’s child as a result of Jacob’s attack, Sid otherwise leaves the reader hanging.  Did Grace actually survive?  What was her response to the death of John Trause?  Did she actually have an affair with Trause?  Did she and Sid stay together?  None of these questions are answered.  Auster slyly deprives the reader of one of the most important parts of any story, the ending.  Ironically, this omission reinforces his theme, demonstrating that loss on many levels is part of the universal human condition.