Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster

07/10/06, The Times

The knotty schizophrenia at the heart of Paul Auster’s oeuvre can be represented by a series of opposing terms: cold, modish intellectualism versus rambunctious storytelling, postmodern shenanigans versus old-fashioned narrative, European modernism (particularly Beckett, Camus, the French existentialists) versus American picaresque inflected by Melville and Twain. While some of his works, such as Oracle Night or The Book of Illusions, have inhabited and encompassed both terrain, some, such as The New York Trilogy, have been notable for their austere postmodern interiors, a preoccupation with the amorphousness of identity, reflexive metanarratives and what is considered ‘philosophy’ by the crowd whose idea of that discipline is the first Matrix film. Pure hokum, in other words, but dressed up as attractively profound. Yet others, such as Mr. Vertigo and The Music of Chance, have been much more conventional attempts at spinning yarns – and cracking good yarns they are, too – shorn of lit-crit acrobatics and Philosophy-Lite.

Travels in the Scriptorium
sees Auster return to what is being billed, with admirable innocence, as ‘metaphysical fiction’. Which means that this slim novel, all of 130 pages, is about a man called Mr Blank, who sits on a bed in a room and stares at the wall, unable to remember anything about his life or what has brought him to this place where objects are marked with their names on stickers. The initial scenario is common to a lot of Auster’s novels and is one of the many obviously Beckettian tropes he has used with self-conscious consistency. Here, too, he pays homage to the combinatorial mania that seize up Molloy and Malone, the deliberate frustration of simple enquiries, such as whether the closet can be located or a door can be opened; there is even a direct allusion to the famous trance-inducing rocking in Murphy in the brief paragraph where Mr Blank discovers the possibilities of the chair in his room.

Other actors enter the room – an affectionate and caring nurse, Anna, who tells him that he must dress in complete white for his meeting with a Peter Stillman; a former Inspector of Scotland Yard called James P. Flood; Mr Blank’s doctor, Samuel Farr – and all of them leave him with a piece of tantalising information: a name, an act, a task, an exhortation to read the manuscript and go through the pile of photographs on his table. Readers who know by now that these names and characters are all out of Auster’s own books (more such names will come thick and fast towards the end) will not be surprised to find the old tune of nested metafictional narratives played out again: Flood has come to Mr Blank to seek his help in locating a reference to himself in the work of a Fanshawe, the manuscript Mr Blank is reading is written by John Trause (geddit?), below this manuscript is one called Travels in the Scriptorium by N.R. Fanshawe. Unfortunately, the compressed density of the work, and the grip it exerts, is utterly ruined by a facile, shallow coda that spells out ‘what it all means’.