Shane's Reviews > Travels in the Scriptorium

Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster
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Auster invites us into his labyrinth again, then twists and turns us around with various possibilities, and leaves us hanging wondering where the heck we have been to and where the heck this story will end up.

This is one of his sparsest novels. Mr. Blank— the unknown old man who wakes up in a sterile but clean room with a bed, an adjoining bathroom, a swivel chair and desk, some manuscripts and a pile of photographs—is either a spymaster or a writer. Perhaps Spymaster is an apt description for Fiction Writer. Mr. Blank is on some treatment regimen that has robbed him of his energy and memory. He has a series of visitors, each revealing a piece of his past, each featured in one of the photographs on his desk; each has been in his employ during which he had sent them on dangerous assignments abroad, the results of which did not often end satisfactorily. A camera takes a picture per second, recording all his movements, burps and farts. He is ministered to by nurses, Anna and Sophie, who also provide him sexual favours, given that his incarceration is devoid of touch and love, and he is still capable of sex even though his body is failing him. And yet, Mr. Blank is afraid to check the door to his room to see whether it is unlocked. Instead he spends his time perambulating around the room on the swivel chair, reading the manuscripts, and trying to recall his earlier life. He appears to have agreed to this incarceration, a clue perhaps to the fact that he is a writer, safest while spending his time in his room in isolation with only his characters and stories for company.

The manuscript that he reads has an eerie resemblance to his own life, that is, as much of that life which is revealed through his visitors and his own faulty memory. However, the story in the manuscript is set in the early 1800’s in some fictitious country and appears to be a metaphor for how the west was won in the USA, replete with the decimation of indigenous tribes by white settlers. If he was writing about what he knew, was Blank himself a racist who committed murder and genocide? When the manuscript ends abruptly, Mr. Blank is intent on finishing it and dives into the myriad possibilities on where this story could go. This is where Auster treats us to a showcase of storytelling virtuosity and provides us the second clue to the fact that Mr. Blank is indeed an author living inside his own fiction. The title “Scriptorium” alludes to this too. That Blank likes certain characters, even loves them like Anna, and dislikes others like Flood, strengthens this supposition. An unknown narrator appears at the end, summing up the case, and this adds another dimension to the “story within the story”; perhaps there is a third story, or many more—the classic Auster labyrinth.

Is there a way out of this maze? Auster seems to suggest not. The author once ensconced in his world reaps the reward and the punishment for creating it. His characters punish him too, for the descriptive labels that have been stuck to various objects in the room get moved around mysteriously, and Blank struggles to restore the order by sticking them back properly, again conveying that very human of drives, of needing to control one’s environment if only for one’s sanity. Is he suffering from Alzheimers? This thought crossed my mind at one point, but Blank seems to dredge up characters we haven’t even met, leading me to believe that under that cloud of medication lies a sound mind trying to assert control.

The temptation for the reader of such surrealistic novels is to try and make sense of them. Some have compared this book to Kafka or the Kabbalah. But I never made sense of Kafka or Kabbalah, both were too deep for me, so let me skip the comparisons and make one punt at a more surface level possibility. I could be wrong, but this is only one reader’s perspective: Auster was visioning his own end as a writer. If so, it is a story without a happy ending.
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Started Reading
April 6, 2019 – Shelved
April 6, 2019 – Finished Reading

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