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

More Chance in Paul Auster's Fiction

Steven E. Alford brings up the idea of chance and fate in contemporary narrative in his article "Chance in Contemporary Narrative: The Example of Paul Auster." In the case of Oracle Night, the role of chance and the reconstruction of past chance happenings relate to Berger's discussion of apocalypse as trauma in After the End. Alford presents two ideas about possible interpretations of the world; "that life is meaningless (i.e. its events as experienced are random), and that insight into life's meaning (and time's illusory character) can be understood through analyzing the operation of memory (the 'mystery' of life)" (76). Essentially, either the things that happen are random and occur only by chance, or there is some sort of outside force governing the operation of the world that we do not understand (but that we potentially could). Both of these ideas appear in Oracle Night in the narrator's retelling of these past events. Because the narrator experiences a serious trauma by the end of the novel, his retelling of it can be seen as a narrative "working out" of the trauma of his wife's assault according to Berger's theory of apocalypse as trauma. Chance and fate both come into play in how the narrator works out this trauma because how he interprets the past events leading up to this trauma are determined by his views on fate and chance.

Initially, Sidney's retelling of his wife's trauma (which the reader does not know is coming) seems to be simply telling a story (as defined by Alford), and the construction of a potential novel within in the story initially seems to be the focus of Sidney's narrative. The reader is experiencing the events as a chronological sequence with no major indication of causality within these sequences. Contributing to this effect are the extensive footnotes that appear frequently in the first two-thirds of the narrative, but disappear when his purpose of explaining his wife's assault and his trauma as a result become clear to the reader. The footnotes are somewhat distracting and seem to only serve the purpose of filling in background information about Sidney's retelling of these events. They distract the reader from trying to consider the purpose of the narrative itself. During this sense of story over plot, the events of Sidneys daily life seem to be chance. They seem random, and no connection to the event that they will cause in the future is given. This element of the narrative seems to favor the view that the world is governed by chance, that life's events are simply random, and that we cannot understand the purpose of events or any outside force governing them because no such thing exists.

However, when Sidney reveals his purpose in constructing this narrative, he changes views. Now, the reader understands that these past events are not random from Sidney's perspective. They did not simply happen by chance. All of the seemingly random events that he has recounted are suddenly given significance in his narrative (with the exception of events that initially seemed more central, like the novel that Sidney was writing; though this is not to say that there are no parallels between this novel-within-the-novel, only that it has less of a direct connection to Sidney's purpose in the narrative that it initially seemed to have). His wife's instability and distance, his encounters with John Trause (like receiving the old manuscript that he lost in the subway), his visit to John's son, and countless other past events become essential to the ultimate trauma of his wife's assault. Before the trauma, these events had no significance, but now that he is reconstructing a narrative to work out this trauma, he finds importance in all of them. He makes connections, which, depending on one's take on chance, may not really exist. Auster keeps this element of uncertainty alive because he doesn't allow Sidney to know for sure whether his wife and John had an affair. All of these connections may not be real because Sidney only has his ideas about these connections; he has no proof. However, despite the lack of proof, Sidney believes in his reconstruction of these events and the meaning he attaches to them because it allows him to work out his trauma. He is writing this narrative about an event in his past from a distance (more than 20 years), and he still has not fully coped with this trauma. The connections he makes allow him to move past this trauma, or at least delude himself into thinking that he has.