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Travels in the Scriptorium: A Novel

Travels in the Scriptorium: A Novel

Author:Paul Auster
Publisher:Henry Holt. and Co.

By Stephen Peterson | Posted 3/7/2007

If you're not familiar with Paul Auster, run away from Travels in the Scriptorium. This little book--at 150 pages, Auster's shortest since the individual books of the New York Trilogy--would be largely incomprehensible to you. Even if Auster floats your boat, you, too, might well turn away from it for being a needless rehash of Austerian landscapes and themes. Auster has done what he does here better and with more panache in his earlier books. It is best read as Auster's Ecce Homo. Like Nietzsche, Auster takes aim at all aspects of his creation; but where Nietzsche was airy and amusing in his look backward, Auster is ponderous, and the brevity of the book is one of its redeeming values.

Travels tells the story of Mr. Blank, an amnesiac who finds himself locked in a small white room furnished with a bed and a desk. A manuscript and a pile of photographs sit on the desk. Mr. Blank is visited by people who know him, but whom he does not know or remember. (Save for Mr. Blank, all the characters, whether they actually appear in the book or are referenced offhand, here have been characters in other books by Auster.) Mr. Blank's visitors talk about the "missions" on which he has sent them.

You can begin to understand what Auster is getting at: Mr. Blank is a writer, and he has created these people--characters freed from their book-prisons--who now come to visit him in his own prison. Further, Mr. Blank is the author of the manuscript, as we glean from his ability to spin out the remainder of the manuscript's story to his psychiatrist. And further, the novel about Mr. Blank's imprisonment in the room--titled Travels in the Scriptorium--is written by a man named Fanshawe, a creation of Mr. Blank (and also a character in another book by Auster).

Travels--as novel and novel within novel--ends up functioning as an annoying shaggy dog joke. If the above meta-fictive inquiries sound tedious, there are also scenes of Mr. Blank defecating, farting, getting a hand job, fondling a nurse's breasts, and pissing himself. There seems to be no reason for these weirdly graphic titillations to be included in the book, unless Auster simply wanted some time away from gazing at his navel.

Reviews of this novel have compared it with Beckett, and, like Beckett, Auster can be a spare, mystifying, moral cipher. But Beckett's desperate characters slogged through bleakness and became symbols of post-World War II anomie, and Beckett's writing was a fresh and shocking take on modern man's condition. Travels in the Scriptorium isn't fresh, and you can only hope that Auster hasn't burned out his talent.

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