Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster
Henry Holt and Company 2007 160 pp.
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
In a barren and antiseptic room, an “old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor.” Is this a glimpse into the glorious future awaiting our Boomer Nation? No, just the opening page of Paul Auster’s latest, Travels in the Scriptorium.
Auster’s publications are not only numerous, but also broad. The author of 12 previous novels, he has also published poetry, memoir, translations, screenplays, and edited collections. However, despite this impressive productivity, he will probably remain best known for one of his earliest publications, The New York Trilogy, consisting of City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. These endlessly entertaining and intellectually sophisticated metaphysical whodunits explore a dizzying range of topics in a deceptively simple style. They consider the question of identity, the nature of chance, and the status of language in self-knowledge, all couched in a riveting set of stories that play at being lifted from the plots of cheap detective novels. We are indebted to Auster for these tales, already classics.
Which brings us to Scriptorium, a story filled with delightfully, maddeningly elusive (and allusive) connections to his earlier work. The old man we meet in the opening pages is beset by the problems of excessive maturity, but not those of erectile dysfunction, the unnamed narrator is at pains to illustrate. Unable to remember not only the visitors to his room, but his own past, the man (named Mr. Blank by the narrator) struggles with his connection both to the wider and the interior world. Is the door to his room locked? What lies outside those shutters that cover the sole window? Who is the mature woman, Anna, who serves as his nurse? Why is an ex-policeman scheduled to visit him, and what will he want?
To allay his anxiety, Anna directs him toward the desk in his room, which is covered with piles of paper and photographs. He begins reading some of the pages, which concern an odd story that seems to exist in a universe parallel to our own, set in a nineteenth-century America that bears some resemblance to the historical one, but with puzzling differences. Mr. Blank struggles with the photographs as well: the people look familiar, indeed, some of them may be photos of younger versions of the people who visit him in his room, but he can never be sure.
As he struggles with his challenges, both intellectual and physical, fragments of names return to Mr. Blank: Peter Stillman, Daniel Quinn, Fanshawe, Sophie, Marco Fogg, Benjamin Sachs. He carefully writes these down on a list, along with his visitors’ names, never sure of their connection, but certain that he will need them to make sense of his predicament.
Faithful readers of Auster’s novels will recognize immediately these names as characters from Auster’s earlier works, from The New York Trilogy and subsequent novels. They are described as Mr. Blank’s “agents” who somehow have been doing his bidding in the wider world. But what is their relation to Mr. Blank? They’re obviously not real. But then again, neither is Mr. Blank. The narrator concludes that “Mr. Blank is one of us now, and struggle though he might to understand his predicament, he will always be lost.”
“Without him, we are nothing, but the paradox is that we, the figments of another mind, will outlive the mind that made us, for once we are thrown into the world, we continue to exist forever, and our stories go on being told, even after we are dead.”
Auster continues to spin out tales based on the paradox of language’s tendency to spawn narratives: when we look to explain who we are, we find only words, and those words refer only to other words. If the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure were a novelist, his name would be Paul Auster, but, of course, in the world of Paul Auster’s novels, Saussue and Auster are already, in a sense, the same person.
Scriptorium lacks the sense of completeness of some of Auster’s earlier work. While isolating Mr. Blank in a barren room may well have been necessary to maintain the consistency of Auster’s metaphysical allegory, it deprives the reader of any genuine forward movement to the narrative. Living as we do in a literary world populated by the plays of Sartre and Beckett, as well as the novels of Camus, that may not be a criticism, but even at 160 pages, the novel is rendered static by Auster’s decision to prevent Mr. Blank from leaving. But of course, as Travels in the Scriptorium suggests, we are all like Mr. Blank, imprisoned in the room of language.