Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Metafiction is fiction about fiction, writing that draws attention to the fact that it is writing, that it is not real, that it is a construct. There are zillions of different varieties of metafiction – novels about fiction writers writing other novels, novels about readers reading other books, stories within a story…that kind of thing. It’s a very old device and it works to add layers of awareness and meaning to an otherwise straightforward story.


Metafiction brings the reader into a story in a way that regular fiction does not – it asks you to divide your attention between what’s going on in terms of basic plot and how the story is being constructed or who is constructing it. In this sense, it reveals the narrative blueprint and attempts to show you something you might not otherwise have noticed – something about the power of fiction, about fiction’s relationship to what, I suppose, is its opposite, reality. This kind of fiction works in direct opposition to what John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, calls the vivid, continuous dream:


These novels give the reader an experience that assumes the usual experience of fiction as its point of departure, and whatever effect their work may have depends on their conscious violation of the usual fictional effect. What interests us in these novels is that they are not novels but instead, artistic comments on art.


It took me two or three tries to read past page 5 of Paul Auster’s Oracle Night, mainly because I generally dislike straightforward novels with writers as the main character. It wasn’t until I hit page 8 that I realized this wasn’t a straightforward novel and that Auster wasn’t writing a novel at all – but an artistic comment on art. So, I waited a few more days and finally sat down with it when I was in the mood to see what he might be doing.


Oracle Night begins with Sydner Orr, a writer, who is recovering from some unnamed but very serious illness. For the first time in months, Orr is able to begin work on a new manuscript which he bases on a small episode from Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. Orr’s novel deals with a set of characters, who are also dealing with a manuscript – about a man who can predict the future. Already we have three stories floating around. Later in the book, Orr gets asked to write a screenplay about time travel. At another point, another character in the book, also a writer, shares some of his own work with Orr. Woven in and out of these other stories remains Orr’s ongoing account of his troubled marriage. The novel is a tangle of story after story after story. Somehow, hopefully, they are all connected. 


Unless their being connected is beside the point. Metafiction asks us to get over the idea of coherent story and look at a text’s fictionality. For Oracle Night this brought me to re-examine Orr, our first-person narrator, and to doubt him. I know that a first-person unreliable narrator is common in traditional fiction, but in that situation most often the reader learns early on that their narrator is not to be trusted, which then informs their unfolding understanding of the rest of the novel. In Auster’s world, the smooth surface of Orr’s narrative authority is never punctured. Instead, it was only at the end, looking back at Orr’s uncanny ability to create and maintain multiple stories coupled with his need to fictionalize his own reality that eventually had me wondering – it was like being handed an extreme version of the writer as puppet master. And suddenly I was looking at a whole other book.


But for the last week or so, I’ve been debating this interpretation. I realized that holding Oracle Night to my own strict definition of metafiction might have me reading a whole lot more into it than is really there. It’s a seductive idea but I can’t rule out the possibility I may just have it wrong. I see Auster commenting on the use of fiction and storytelling to mediate reality, on fate vs. destiny, on self-fulfilling prophecies…and maybe that’s all, and maybe that’s enough. But if Orr is a legitimate protagonist then a lot of that exploration stays too close to the surface for me.


Part of my hesitation may also come from the fact that I found myself disappointed with Auster’s writing style, so I’m unwilling to give him too much credit. I’m planning to read more of his stuff before deciding for sure, but I felt there was too much flat, sometimes clichéd writing in Oracle Night along with a lot of lengthy, unrealistic dialogue. Perhaps I am not forgiving enough of his homage to noir mystery or maybe he uses that style on purpose to make some point that I’m failing to see. Any Auster fans out there? How does Oracle Night compare with his other work?



11 Responses to “Paul Auster – Oracle Night”

  1. Jacob Russell

    Metafiction doesn’t turn away from the real. The artifice is not “unreal,” it’s part of the reality of how we engage with reality. “Realist” fiction hides the wizard pulling the switches, depriving the reader by offering a severely diminished engagement with the real.

    Of course, the strongest of what goes by that name–realist fiction–doesn’t ask us to lose our minds in the dream or to pretend we don’t see the artifice, and never has.

  2. chartroose

    I’m a big Auster fan, and “Oracle Night” is one of my least favorites. Try “The Brooklyn Follies.” It’ll either hook you totally or make you decide you hate me forever!

  3. Dorothy W.

    I didn’t enjoy Auster’s The Book of Illusions — something about it felt flat, just as you say — although I did love Timbuktu, but that may be because I’m partial to stories about dogs 🙂 Was Gardner saying that metafictional novels aren’t really novels? I don’t buy that idea — it seems to me that many novels, metafictional or not, are “artistic comments on art” and that the “meta” element doesn’t mean it’s not a novel. Or am I misunderstanding?

  4. verbivore

    Hi Jacob – You make an excellent point about metafiction not turning away from the real. It isn’t, as you rightly say, unreal and I would say it asks us to re-examine the real, to mediate our understanding and experience of reality. But I’m not sure I would consider realist fiction a deprivation or a diminished experience of the real…say more, I’m fascinated with this idea as well as what you express in your last statement…if realist fiction isn’t asking us to participate in the dream, than what kind of fiction is Gardner talking about?

    Chartroose – Well this is good to hear from a real Auster fan. I will try another of his and promise not to hold it against you if I end up not liking it. 🙂

    Dorothy – I would love a story about a dog, so will add Timbuktu to the list. About your other question, no, I don’t think that’s what Gardner is doing. I think he would agree that we can’t ever define what a ‘novel’ is – since the novel by nature is a continual reinvention. I think he just wanted to make the point that we can’t necessarily evaluate metafiction with the same tools we would use to evaluate more traditional fiction. He only deals with metafiction and deconstructive techniques briefly, mainly because they aren’t after the same aesthetic as more traditional novels, which for him is the creation of the vivid, continuous dream world the reader enters once they start reading. I also think that non-metafictional novels can make “artistic comments on art”, just not in the same self-reflective way.

  5. Ann Darnton (Table Talk)

    I am seriously comforted by the fact that you had problems getting into this book. I’ve tried Auster on several occasions, persisting because a friend whose reading habits I really respect thinks he’s wonderful. However, I’ve never got past the first few pages. You reassure me that he is worth persisting with and as this isn’t one of the books I’ve tried so far maybe I should try again with this one.

  6. Ted

    I enjoyed your thoughts about metafiction. I’m interested in it as a form myself because, as you say, the story becomes part of the story. In our self-conscious age, acknowledging the artifice is sometimes the best way in. I’ve read pretty much everything of Auster’s and have enjoyed THE NEW YORK TRILOGY, MOON PALACE, THE MUSIC OF CHANCE, TIMBUKTU, and THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES. He’s one of the contemporary American authors I would describe as having written a significant body of work. Give a couple of his others a shot before you write him off, although he could very well not be your style. I know P. Roth’s work is supposed to be important but I cannot, for the life of me, get through a single one of his books.

  7. verbivore

    Ann – Take a look at what some others have written as well, perhaps there is a better Auster to start with. We’ll give him another chance together and compare notes!

    Ted – This is so helpful, especially as I trust your reading tastes so much already. I will try him again and see what I think. Your comment about Roth made me laugh because I’m also reading my first Roth novel right now, Everyman, and let’s just say it isn’t bowling me over as I thought it would. But I have two others on the shelf and look forward to letting them change my mind.

  8. Jacob Russell

    We would be better off confining the term “realist” to writers like Flaubert, who developed and perfected a particular set of conventions, and only later identified even with writers they openly challenged, blurring the term to something only meaningful as a market genre–including everything from Austin to the lastest bestseller. Worth going back to Mark Thwait’s post where he first (?) refers to ELF–Establishment Literary Fiction. Worth revisiting. HERE

    “Reality” is inescapable. Inescapable and multifaceted. The opposition between “realist” fiction and … whatever else you want to call it, is profoundly misleading. Writers address different facits of reality. It’s ideology and politics that define the common notion of what makes a novel “realistic,” not aesthetics or mimetic concerns. There’s where Gardener goes wrong, misled by his noble idea of a “moral fiction,” an idea that can only be forced on a text and so narrow that it left Gardener unable to offer even an intelligent reading of Kafka (I’m thinking of his comments on The Country Doctor). .. or Joyce, for that matter.

  9. verbivore

    Jacob – The Thwait post is great, thank you for posting the link. I see what you are getting at – and yes, I can agree that labelling literature (realist, metafictional, deconstructive, genre, etc etc) isn’t where the conversation should be focused. At the same time, I think I can’t start having a different discussion until I fully understand what those terms mean and why we use them the way we do. Which is exactly what I’m trying to do here at the blog by keeping track of my thoughts as I read.

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