By Paul Auster
Holt. 160 pp. $22
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Reviewed by John Freeman
No American novelist dreams in celluloid quite like Paul Auster. Many of his characters discover that the mind is just an elaborate director's studio, memory the editor's booth. In his tremendous 1982 memoir,
The Invention of Solitude
, Auster proved how powerful this metaphor could be as he reflected on the losses that made him a writer, jump-cutting from one part of his life to the next. Now, 24 years later, he has produced a companion piece to that book: a short, brisk, odd little fable called
Travels in the Scriptorium
As the tale begins, a man wakes up in a bare room with no idea who he is, where he is, or how he got there. Mr. Blank, as Auster dubs him, cannot even remember the names of objects, so every piece of furniture in eyeshot has been labeled: DESK, LAMP, CHAIR. A manuscript rests on the desk, so Mr. Blank sits down and begins to read. He finds himself reading about a man who is imprisoned, who is being watched and perhaps tormented. Mr. Blank begins to relate to the tale. Then he is interrupted by a guest who has some questions for him.
Say what one will about Auster's repetition of devices - the book within a book, the off-stage tormentor, the loss of memory - he has become frightfully good at manipulating a good story out of them. The novel unfolds over the course of a single day, so the reader experiences Mr. Blank's curious condition in real time. Within a few pages one is flying through this book in search of answers, every bit as agitated as Auster's hero.
Every few pages, Mr. Blank meets yet another visitor who has come to check on him.
Readers familiar with Auster's literary detective series, The New York Trilogy, will recognize these characters: Anna Blume, Flood, and Fanshawe. Auster has scripted them all back into action here, only now they are doing the interrogating. Why did you put me through such trials? Do you still think about me? By braving the surefire criticism that he has gone down the wormhole of authorial self-regard, Auster has cleverly captured a writer's dilemma. The more he gives to his creations, the emptier he becomes - to the point where he has nothing left to give. Still his creations ask for more.
Travels in the Scriptorium is a bit of a closed system. One needn't have read The New York Trilogy to appreciate the book, but it helps. Some curiosity about or sympathy for a writer's plight might also make this a more enjoyable read, too. But Auster doesn't leave the newcomer in the dark. There are some wonderful touches here. After he discovers that the manuscript on the desk is unfinished, Mr. Blank has a go at finishing it. "Haven't felt so full of beans all day," he says after making some headway. Later he rewards himself with a nap and returns from "a brief sojourn in The Land of Nod." Even though the author is hitting a minor key, readers are apt to feel the same way after this latest visit to the Land of Auster.