Monday, April 9, 2007

Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster--a review

I just finished Paul Auster’s latest novel, Travels in the Scriptorium: A Novel. Before this, I had only read one of Auster’s novels, The Book of Illusions: A Novel, and little did I know when I started, but this is quite a handicap when reading his new book. The ideal reader here is a tried and true Auster fan.

The Book of Illusions was mesmerizing; while reading I felt like I was listening to a master storyteller. This book is a totally different experience. It’s very sparely told, and it gives an obvious nod to Samuel Beckett. It’s about one day in the life of an old, enfeebled man. This man wakes up in a small, white room where he is constantly monitored by cameras. The man, named by the narrator Mr. Blank, doesn’t know who he is or why he’s here, and he feels he is a prisoner, but never has the energy to check the door to see if it’s locked.

Throughout the day, various people visit Mr. Blank, some to nurse him, and provide pills that are part of a mysterious “treatment,” others to confront him about his part in ruining their lives. Mr. Blank feels guilt about this, but he isn’t sure why.

It turns out that these visitors are characters from Auster’s previous works. It’s clever, clever, clever, but it doesn’t work for me. I admit that I might have been more engaged in the story if I had read the books, known these characters, and understood more about their backgrounds. But for me, they are mere types: Anna and Sophie the nurses, Farr the doctor, Flood the policeman, Quinn the lawyer. And perhaps if this book filled in the blanks about what happened to these characters in the meantime, or more fully explained their various attitudes to Mr. Blank, I would have been more interested in them.

On the desk in Mr. Blank's room is a typescript, which he picks up and reads. It’s about another prisoner—but a prisoner in an unnamed country in the nineteenth century, who tells part of the story of why he is imprisoned and condemned to death. This story within the story is more entertaining to me than the prescribed world of Mr. Blank, whose struggle to get through the day left me feeling as listless as the character seems. Mr. Blank reads the unfinished manuscript, and finishes the story in his head, manipulating the characters in the callous way that writers do when they are trying to make their story come out satisfactorily. This proves Mr. Blank is a writer, and perhaps proves the point of the characters who visit, who accuse him of cruelty.

It’s metaphysical territory, about the torment of being a writer—Auster seems to be wondering what has happened to his characters after he’s done with them, and what happens to writers after they have arranged and rearranged their characters’ lives. I’m interested in the questions he raises about the writer’s responsibilities, and I like the way Auster plays with reality, but this book is a little too spare, and too postmodern, for me.


iliana said...

I know this is totally silly but when I first heard of the book I was attracted to it by the title alone but when I saw the cover I was a bit unnerved by it. There's something so strange about it. Anyway, I haven't tried any of his books yet but I think when I do I'll check out Book of Illusions first.

Gentle Reader said...

Iliana--I know, isn't the cover weird? I don't think that's silly at all. In fact, I've often thought about writing about how sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover:)

I've heard Auster fans really like his New York Trilogy, and also The Brooklyn Follies and Oracle Night, so those are some other choices for you...