ENG441b: Contemporary American Literature, Fiction
Prof. E. Joy
19 March 2008
Problematic Levels: Incest and Bastards in Oracle Night
Figure 1. M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands (1948)
The life of Grace and Trause came before the life of Grace and Sidney. But we do not learn of it until after the life of Grace and Sidney is in full swing. In fact, it does not become real (more specifically: non-speculative) until after it is written down in the notebook. It only becomes real (and provable) when Jacob mentions that Grace was an “unofficial stepmom” to him (235). Sidney’s speculative world – created via time-travel with the notebook and therefore on a lower level – has moved up one level to collide with the level of which is superior to the Grace and Trause ‘story.’ Or is it? For a moment, while the Grace and Trause story was in the notebook, it was hierarchically subordinate to the story of Grace and Sidney. It had to be; it was not yet proven true and was only a story. Auster then drops breadcrumbs along the path, hinting that the notebook may have allowed Sidney to transcribe a work of non-fiction, only to find that the fictitious lower-level story is really on the same level as the Grace and Sidney story. It’s incestuous: the literary equivalent of a woman giving birth to her sister.
The two levels conjoin at the moment Grace is talking about the pregnancy and becomes ironic in that the lower level was supposed to be in a trash can on the street, gone and forgotten, never to be proven true or false. Now, the story has come back to life in some sort of Stephen King-like nightmare to eradicate the other story within a story: Grace’s pregnancy. Just as Sidney shredded the lower level story and threw it away (actually burying it, and far from the house where the Grace and Sidney story resides), Jacob is coming into the Grace and Sidney story to shred and eradicate any evidence that the baby may not be Sidney’s. This is a lower-level world invading a higher-level world, thus becoming its equal, to bury a secret that resides in both worlds.
In McHale’s “Chinese-Box Worlds,” he puts it brilliantly: “[I]t is impossible to determine who is the author of whom, or, to put it slightly differently, which narrative level is hierarchically superior, which subordinate.” One can then ask: Is Sidney prophetic in that he can now see stories before they happen – a sort of poetic justice for writing a story with that very premise? Or is the notebook as powerful as Trause makes it out to be – does it have the ability to allow Sidney to time-travel? If Sidney has the gift of prophecy, the story of Grace and Sidney must be on a superior level to the others. If the notebook is prophetic, then the story of Grace and Sidney is only following the story of Grace and Trause and therefore must be contingent upon that story, making it equal or secondary. As McHale puts it, we then have to ask: Is Sidney the author or is the notebook the author? If Sidney is indeed prophetic, he is the author. If the notebook is a powerful/magic object, we must see it as the author (and Sidney the tool.)
Auster drops a major philosophical bomb when Sidney writes the treatment for the movie. During its creation Sidney ponders the ramifications of time travel and how changing the past can alter the future, instantaneously. So, let’s say that Grace did not have an affair with Trause. Now the powerful notebook time-travels and rewrites her previous affair to be with Trause. Once Sidney was done writing it he put into motion a chain of events that caused the past to be altered and inevitably changed the future. Trause put it simply: “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” (222).
On that note, Sidney is not recording the past (the story of Grace and Trause) but creating it in order to make “things happen in the future.” He writes what he believes to be a lower-level story not knowing that he is fact writing the future. Rewriting the past must alter the future. Again, if you said Sidney is the author: Grace’s past was an empty slate to Sidney, so no matter what he wrote he could not in any way be recording the past. If you said the notebook was the author: Grace’s past was irrelevant in that the notebook rewrote it on the spot. Add the power of the notebook’s ability to time-travel and we have Sidney literally writing Grace’s past, giving us a rhetorical picture reminiscent of the Escher drawing McHale mentioned (Drawing Hands.)