May 2007

Ned Vizzini


Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster

Everyone hates clip shows -- those TV shows that feature clips of old episodes -- but only the greats get to make one. Seinfeld did a two-part clip show in the weeks leading up to its 1998 finale. The Simpsons has aired a mind-bending five since 1993, each including an apology from the writers.

So what are we to make of Paul Auster? His 13th novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, sounds suspiciously like a literary clip show: an abbreviated frame tale populated with characters from his previous books.

Is he readying for retirement? Attempting to distill the essence of his work? Trying to tell us something about the number 13 (don’t dismiss it; in The Music of Chance Auster outlined the personalities of several numbers, calling 10 “simpleminded” and 11 “an outdoorsman”)?

We have to hope that it’s not the old, burned-out TV answer: he simply needed a break.

Travels in the Scriptorium details a day in the life of Mr. Blank, an old man who wakes up in a room not knowing who he is or why he is there. The room, a sort of collegiate Motel 6, is equipped with a comfortable leather chair and a manuscript at a desk.
With nothing better to do, Mr. Blank begins to read the manuscript, but no sooner does he start than he is interrupted by a stream of visitors -- a nurse, an ex-cop, a doctor -- who begin asking him about his “operatives.” The visitors and operatives are all characters from previous Auster novels.

So Travels in the Scriptorium is really two books: one for Auster fans and one for everybody else. If you fall into the first group, you’re in luck. You now have a treasure hunt on your hands. You might as well grab a pen, as Mr. Blank does, and start writing down names as if you were reading Encyclopedia Brown. Here, I did some work for you:

It’s a parlor trick, yes, but Auster has always recognized that a simple literary parlor trick -- a story within a story, a character with a strange name -- can become something more through repetition. As operatives continue to barge in on Mr. Blank, telling stories about those who have just left, the relationships pile on top of one another until you land in that strange place that Auster has taken you before: one where every fact is, in fact, another person’s story.

Anyone new to Auster is not invited to the party. Without a-ha recognition at a name like “Fanshawe,” entering and exiting characters blur and two tepid forms of entertainment remain. First there are Mr. Blank’s daily proceedings, which are quite juvenile; at one point he farts and says “Hopalong Casidy rides again!” Second there is the story-within-a-story that Mr. Blank finds on his desk, a half-baked mystical Western about “the Confederation” and “the Alien Territories.”

There is also Auster’s distracting over-description (“He savors the bulk and softness of Sophie’s somewhat pendulous but noble mammaries”) and questionable slang (“two shakes of a cat”). Careful reading is necessary to acquit some phrases; a tautology like “the word all is an absolute term” becomes acceptable only if one remembers its pair, “the word old is a flexible term,” 23 pages back. Homophonic italics? Auster is having fun, and it can come off as a little rude.

As Mr. Blank’s day drags on, things do not go well. His visitors drug him, the manuscript that he’s reading ends abruptly, and someone plays a mean trick on him by moving things around in his room. But then he has a breakthrough: under the guidance of Dr. Farr, he is able to finish the tale of the Confederation and the Alien Territories. Thus, the entire setup -- the scriptorium -- seems to be an in-patient facility for writer’s block.

Travels in the Scriptorium poses deep and endlessly debatable questions. Who is really in charge of the creative process: the artist or the art? Is writing a prison (Mr. Blank seems trapped in his room) or is it a paradise (he’s fed, clothed, and sexually serviced by one of his nurses)? Is there such a thing as truth, or are there only the fabrications of reckless writers?

Clip shows don’t promote this much thought. Perhaps this novel is more of a rap album: praising its own merits and utilizing well-known characters to create something new. In 2000, Limp Bizkit put out a record called Chocolate Starfish and the Hot-Dog Flavored Water in which every song, from “My Generation” to a tune that cited “Life in the Fast Lane,” was a rip-off of a song that had come before. Paul Auster has the advantage of being able to rip off his own work.

Definitely not TV burnout, but like those clip shows, for fans only.

Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster
Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN: 0805081453
160 pages