- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2007

TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM

By Paul Auster

Henry Holt and Company, $22, 260 pages

REVIEWED BY JOANNE MCNEIL

A microphone is embedded in the wall and a camera is implanted in the ceiling. Second-by-sec

ond, the camera secretly snaps photos of an old man sitting in a near-empty room. But “even if he knew he was being watched, it wouldn’t make any difference. His mind is elsewhere, stranded among the figments in his head as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him.”

And so begins Paul Auster’s 14th novel, “Travels in the Scriptorium,” a postmodern puzzle paying tribute to Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien and Italo Calvino, without ever quite reminding the reader of Mr. Auster’s own past literary achievements.

Aptly named “Mr. Blank,” the man under surveillance is locked in an embodied conundrum — the “scriptorium” is housed in the deep recesses behind Mr. Auster’s eyes. Mr. Blank looks at a wall, with the word “wall” written on it, and reads the word aloud.

But like Searle’s Chinese Room, “what cannot be known at this point is whether he is reading the word on the strip of tape or simply referring to the wall itself. It could be that he has forgotten how to read but still recognizes things for what they are and can call them by their names, or, conversely, that he has lost the ability to recognize things for what they are but still knows how to read.”

And just as the reader expects Rod Serling to welcome us into the fifth dimension, the phone rings. It’s James P. Flood.

James P. Flood? From “The New York Trilogy” (arguably Mr. Auster’s finest work)? Ah yes, “Travels in the Scriptorium” isn’t much of a novel at all, but a Paul Auster puppet show featuring a number of characters from past novels. They appear in Loveboat-style cameos, talking cotton-candy philosophy, tolerable only if one remembers the three-dimensional human beings they were in the novels for which Mr. Auster created them.

What one thinks of this set-up entirely depends on what one thinks of the prefix “meta.” Ironically, fans of experimental fiction will be the least forgiving of Mr. Auster’s cliche-heavy, clunky dialogue: “You’ve sacrificed your life to something bigger than yourself, and whatever you’ve done or haven’t done; it’s never been for selfish reasons,” says one character, a mere 20 pages into the book (to which Mr. Blank replies, “Have you ever been in love?”).

Prolific as he is, Mr. Auster is also notoriously uneven. His work ranges from the heart-wrenching lucidity of “Moon Palace” to the gimmick-driven, forgettable “Timbuktu” (narrated by a dog). In addition to his fiction, Mr. Auster has written several memoirs and directed a handful of well-received independent films (“Blue in the Face,” “Lulu on the Bridge”).

One literary form Mr. Auster hasn’t attempted is the short story, which is a shame, because the first 30 pages of this book hold up on their own. The remaining 100 are directionless, less of a demonstration of the writing process (Mr. Blank’s blatant allegorical significance) than that of writer’s block.

Mr. Blank, Mr. Auster’s essential fictional stand-in, is locked up by his own characters (including two pneumatic females who cannot keep their hands off their creator). Meanwhile, he reads a manuscript, inexplicably sitting in the cell; a first-person narration of another man imprisoned. That’s the story of Sigmund Graf, the second Mr. Auster, this one is a political prisoner, falsely accused of treason in a country called Confederation:

“I have cleared the air pertaining to my sins and transgressions, but that does not mean I can accept guilt for a crime I did not commit. I believe in what the Confederation stands for, and I have passionately defended it with my words, my deeds, and my blood … if these pages should fall into the hands of someone with sufficient strength of heart to read them in the spirit with which they were written, then perhaps my murder will not have been an entirely useless act.”

Unfortunately, both stories are equally lacking in suspense. “I’m Not Stiller” and “Invitation to a Beheading” (let alone the work of Kafka) both prove that a metafictional prison setting need not limit the author to solipsistic writing exercises in describing what the air smells like when one pokes his head out the window. Mr. Auster’s jerrybuilt imprisonment never quite feels claustrophobic, just small and pencil-sketched.

What follows is a comment on the creative process that won’t surprise anyone familiar with “Six Characters in Search of an Author” or Charlie Kauffman films. Had Mr. Auster fully developed his theme of surveillance-state paranoia, and tied it in to his obsession with allegorical physicality, it might have held up as a thought-provoking farce. Instead the book reads like a first draft. It is sparse (less than 40,000 words,) but that doesn’t make it concise.

Fans of Mr. Auster’s earlier work might wonder if he wrote this manuscript to be junked. Among his earlier works were several instant classics, soaring tales of homegrown magical realism.

In them, Mr. Auster created charming, unforgettable characters. In “Moon Palace,” there was Marco Fogg, the Columbia undergraduate who wandered homeless in Central Park. In “The New York Trilogy” readers met Peter Stillman, the Kaspar Hauser-inspired character who spent his childhood locked alone in a dark room, and whose resulting eerie speech patterns in adulthood are as vividly experienced as a nightmare.

Seeing the names Marco Fogg and Peter Stillman in “Travels in the Scriptorium” somewhat diminishes their power, and makes one wonder if Mr. Auster’s novelty has finally worn off.

Maybe Mr. Blank agrees, as he “tosses the typescript onto the desk, snorting with dissatisfaction and contempt, furious that he has been compelled to read a story that has no ending, an unfinished work that has barely even begun, a mere bloody fragment.” But instead, Mr. Blank decides he must on his own determine how to tie together the loose ends in the Graf story:

“A new idea has entered his head. A fiendish, devastating illumination that sends a wave of pleasure shuddering through his body, from the very toes on his feet to the nerve cells in his brain. In a single instant, the whole business has been made clear to him, and as the old man contemplates the shattering consequences of what he now knows is the inevitable choice available to him from a horde of contending possibilities, he begins to pound his chest and kick his feet and shake his shoulders as he lets out a whoop of wild, convulsive laughter.”

The reader wishes Mr. Auster may soon have such eureka-moments, since “Travels in the Scriptorium” reflects none of that.

Joanne McNeil is a freelance writer in Massachusetts.


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