Imagine a small room, all in white, with a bed and a desk and a chair and not much else. Piled on the desk are a series of black and white photographs and a stack of manuscript pages. Sitting in the room is an old man, also dressed all in white. A camera mounted in the ceiling records his every action, and a sound-recording device tapes his every word. This man has no recollection of who he is, why he's there, or even what his name is --- we'll call him Mr. Blank. Is Mr. Blank a prisoner or a refugee? An invalid or a recluse?
Much of Paul Auster's newest novel, TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM, leaves these questions unanswered, forcing on readers the same kind of disorientation, claustrophobia and, yes, at times, tedium that plagues the mysterious Mr. Blank. Mr. Blank struggles with his unreliable body, with his even more unreliable memory --- his memories come back in brief flashbacks that are lost as quickly as they come --- and with his fundamental questions of self-identity.
During the course of the day, Mr. Blank contemplates the photos on his desk, some of which correspond to the visitors who call on him periodically throughout the day. But, again, who are these people, and do they wish Mr. Blank harm or goodwill? Longtime Auster fans will recognize some of these figures from Auster's earlier works, particularly THE NEW YORK TRILOGY, but even these devotees are unlikely to make heads or tails of the characters' connection to Mr. Blank --- at least at first.
Mr. Blank also peruses the partial manuscript that lies on his desk, which tells the story of Sigmund Graf, an officer of the Bureau of Internal Affairs for a country called the Confederation. Graf's story --- about an ill-fated mission to find a man named Ernesto Land --- remains maddeningly unfinished, requiring Mr. Blank to come to his own conclusions about Graf's narrative and its future directions.
Finally, near the end of this most enigmatic novel, Mr. Blank's lawyer arrives, explaining that Mr. Blank has been charged with "the whole gamut…From criminal indifference to sexual molestation. From conspiracy to commit fraud to negligent homicide. From defamation of character to first-degree murder." But the questions remain --- is Mr. Blank kept in this room for punishment, or for protection?
Auster's latest is in many ways --- besides the recurrence of key characters --- a throwback to his earliest novels, collected as THE NEW YORK TRILOGY. With its postmodern self-referentiality, existential questions and disorienting style, TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM is a far less accessible work than, say, his previous book, THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES. It is also, with its claustrophobic setting, spareness and unusual symbolism, an homage of sorts to the minimalism and near-surrealism of Beckett and Kafka.
For readers not afraid to wrestle with existential questions, TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM is a demanding, but ultimately satisfying, reading experience.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011
Travels in the Scriptorium