Travels in the Scriptorium
by Paul Auster
Published by Henry Holt
160 pages, 2007
Mr. Blank’s Big Day
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
An old man wakes up in a sparsely furnished room not knowing where or when or even who he is. The items that are in the room are labeled: DESK, says one sign. LAMP says another. When he manages to shuffle over to the desk he finds a stack of photos and a typed manuscript that proves to be part of a story of another captive in a different time and place.
The only name we ever have for the old man is Mr. Blank, though elements of our single day with him give us hints about who he might be. They are just hints, though: just as we -- and he -- feel as though we’re approaching his identity, another piece surfaces and we wonder, once again.
Paul Auster’s 13th novel is almost wonderful. One gets the feeling that the author was reaching for something here, something he doesn't quite attain. Part of the reason for this might be a simple lack of scope. The book is called Travels in the Scriptorium: A Novel. But that word -- Novel -- is misleading in this instance. At not quite 40,000 words, Travels in the Scriptorium is a novella, in every way one might think to use that word. As a novella, it feels like an experiment, a good one, at that. An extreme exercise in "what if?" But it lacks the heft and emotional weight one wants to associate with a novel of this type.
Auster’s tone here is distant, even cold. Both of these things work for this tale. The feeling is one of extreme disconnect. Glimmers of recollection float to Mr. Blank as he travels through his day and, on occasion he seems on the verge of a breakthrough.
He receives several visitors. A couple of attendants -- both women -- feature somehow in his past and youthful photos of both are included with those on the desk. One suspects that one might be either an old lover or a daughter. In either case, Mr. Blank understands that she is someone that he loves. The other woman invites no such emotion, but here the reader suspects (at least this one did) that she might be his wife.
A policeman visits, but he doesn’t offer information, instead demanding information of Mr. Blank: information Mr. Blank can’t supply. If he ever had the answers to the man’s questions, he doesn’t have them now.
A man who announces himself as Mr. Blank’s lawyer visits. And though he tells Mr. Blank he’s being charged with many crimes ("The whole gamut, I’m afraid. From criminal indifference to sexual molestation. from conspiracy to commit fraud to negligent homicide. From defamation of character to first-degree murder. Shall I go on?") it’s possible for the reader to wonder if the man is telling the truth. If he’s who he says he is. Even if he exists at all. Or -- to take that thought to the next level -- if anything that happens in the story takes place, even on the fictional plane. Auster creates such an intensely Kakfa-esque vibe, it’s possible to wonder at the veracity of every aspect of the story: is any of this really happening? Well, it’s fiction, so of course it isn’t happening. But in the reality of the story, is this taking place? And if we’re not seeing what we think we see, what are we seeing?
In that way Travels in the Scriptorium is intensely successful. I just wanted more. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting more. More depth. More levels. More clues to whatever reality the author believes this to be. More flesh on these well conceived bones.
As things stand, the novel -- the novella -- feels incomplete. A half-cooked casserole; a partially baked idea. It’s possible that this was the author’s intention: to create this feeling of instability without conclusion, but even that feels somewhat flawed.
Early on, I had the feeling I knew where the book was leading. In the end, I thought I was correct (I don’t know for certain that I was, of course. That’s the nature of this book: you’ll never really know.) and having what I suspected more or less confirmed wasn’t satisfying. It made me feel as if all of the smoke and mirrors; all the direction and misdirection; all of it was sleight of hand, a puff of smoke or some other thing that is not earthbound and is therefor pointless to try and pin down. | March 2007
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Blue Murder, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.