14 October, 2010

Storytelling stories: 'Oracle Night' and 'Cloud Atlas'

It's a delicate device, choosing to have characters within a novel tell their own stories. At its most overt, the author presents their protagonist as a writer, which can lead to all sorts of wheels-within-wheels scenarios, as you wonder where the author ends and the character begins.

Paul Auster runs visually and virtually parallel stories through Oracle Night. His principal character, Sidney Orr, is a writer, and he talks frequently about his own authoring experience and that of his colleagues. The novel follows Sidney for a period of nine days or so in the eighties, after he purchases a Portuguese notebook from a small Brooklyn stationer, and begins to write for the first time after a long illness.

Sidney gets the idea of a story to write from a snippet in The Maltese Falcon. He takes inspiration from that story to write a tale about a man who walks out on his life after a lucky escape from an accident. Early in the book, large chunks of this 'second-level' story are reproduced. At the first level, Auster presents us with a protagonist who is a writer, creating a story. Within that story, the protagonist is an editor, who is reading a manuscript. And yes, within the second-level story we have a third-level story, as his protagonist reads through and summarises the manuscript (called Oracle Night, as is the novel).

Adding to all of this, when Auster is in his first-level story, he uses footnotes to provide background information. The footnotes are written in the voice of the protagonist, not of the author, adding a layer of complexity and separation from the reader - one starts to question exactly what they're reading. They're not brief, either. Most go across multiple pages, so you have to turn the page(s) to finish reading the footnote, before turning back to where you were in the story.

As I was describing the book's structure to a friend, I found all this talk of second- and third-level stories reminiscent of a certain high-grossing feature film released earlier this year. The comparison came even closer to Inception when Sidney's wife, Grace, described a dream to him (one which resembled the story Sidney was scribbling in his alluring notebook). She ends the description by saying:

People can't die in their dreams, you know...That's how it works. As long as you're dreaming, there's always a way out.

Spinning-top totem, anyone? I wonder if Christopher Nolan is a Auster fan...

Auster's style superficially is very reminiscent of Philip Roth. Both write of men embedded in New York and display an intimate familiarity with the city. Roth too uses writers as protagonists, as in The Ghost Writer (not to be confused with the recent film based on a Robert Harris novel of the same name) and Exit Ghost, and presents stories within stories. Because of that similarity, I felt I was reading a much older book. I was surprised when I realised it was published in 2003 - strange how you can make assumptions about the age of a piece, and how those assumptions affect your reactions to it.

Published the year after Oracle Night was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Mitchell also takes an unusual approach to storytelling, relating six different narratives, in six extremely different styles, starting in a Pacific colony in the 1800s and progressing to 'beyond the future'; that is, the penultimate narrative is futuristic, and the last is the future of that future. Speaking of totems, too, tiny details travel with the characters throughout time and narrative.

Each narrative stops abruptly, making the transition to a new voice and time even rougher on the reader. The strongest testament to Mitchell's writing prowess is how quickly the reader feels comfortable with each new style.

Now, I recognise that producing a novel with various narrative voices doesn't sound unusual on the surface of it. But Mitchell does something very special (this isn't a plot spoiler, but my enjoyment of the book was enhanced by the surprise of not knowing how it worked overall, so feel free to skip the rest of the post). At the book's mid-point, the 'future future' narrative ends, and segues back to the penultimate narrative. The book then progresses backwards through time, completing each story. It's a genius technique, like returning to half a dozen unfinished books in a row, reminding yourself of missed characters and reaching the catharsis of resolution multiple times.

Where it fits into this post is that each of the narratives use the protagonist as storyteller, whether it's written as a diary account, as an interview with an archivist, as a lost novel, as letter, or around a futuristic campfire. What Mitchell reminds us of is the universality and timelessness of storytelling. Certainly, its written formats might change, but we will always communicate our stories and there will always be room for words.

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