Saturday, August 10, 2013

Spacial Oddities: Paul Auster's "Travels In the Scriptorium"


As my previous posts have shown, I've long been an ardent admirer of Paul Auster. However, with my recently completed reading of Travels In the Scriptorium, I realize I've only read two of his novels so far. His biographies, essays, and creative philosophies have profoundly affected me for years, and I even treasure his collected poems. No matter what comes next, from his future works to my eventual completion of his entire bibliography, I'll always count him among my favorite writers, solely based on his nonfictional works. The first Auster novel I read was Moon Palace, and my review was written not long after James Wood wrote a long, fairly scathing dissection of the major themes in the Auster canon. I was a bit younger at the time, and I probably defended Moon Palace more than I would have today. With Travels In the Scriptorium, it feels like Auster was reaching for everything and ended up with a handful of scattered notions. In a slightly twisted way, I'm glad for the opportunity to constructively critique his work, without sacrificing my overall appreciation of his style. For such a slim, quick read, this 2006 work tries to incorporate a wildly diverse set of literary themes, ideas so broadly highlighted and practically annotated. It's not that Auster's prose is lacking, but the plot tries much too hard to be both experimental and straightforward.

It's a story told within the confines of a single day. An old man dubbed Mr. Blank awakens in a small room with very hazy memories of who he is and how he got there. In addition to the bed, there's a desk, a series of papers, and a stack of photographs. Everything in the room, from the lamp to the walls, is labeled accordingly. Mr. Blank is confused, yet finds the occasional remembrance of his past and potential hints as to why he's in this small space. It could be a hospital, or a prison, or a rest home. He is also careful and thoughtful about his own body, especially in relation to his living space.

"Mr. Blank lowers his body into the chair at the desk. It is an exceedingly comfortable chair, he decides, made of soft brown leather and equipped with broad armrests to accommodate his elbows and forearms, not to speak of an invisible spring mechanism that allows him to rock back and forth at will, which is precisely what he begins to do the moment he sits down. Rocking back and forth has a soothing effect on him, and as Mr. Blank continues to indulge in these pleasurable oscillations, he remembers the rocking horse that sat in his bedroom when he was a small boy, and then he begins to to relive some of the imaginary journeys he used to take on that horse, whose name was Whitey and who, in the young Mr. Blank's mind, was not a wooden object adorned with white paint but a living being, a true horse.

After this brief excursion into his early boyhood, anguish rises up into Mr. Blank's throat again. He says out loud in a weary voice: I mustn't allow this to happen (Auster 4)."

From the beginning to the end, Mr. Blank is a willing and unwilling host to a series of phone calls and visitors, some with seemingly noble intentions, and some who very well be out to kill him. He attempts to piece together information, from the statements of his visitors, the photographs, and the complex manuscript in his office (evidence is given for the manuscript being a novel or an oral history). As each visitor comes and goes, Blank adds a name to a list, whether it's the name of the visitor or a name dropped in the conversation, with the hopes of fitting together the puzzle. Blank is also visited by two women, both nurses, one of whom very well could be a lost love. However, it's slightly embarrassing that the sole women in the novel are nothing more than sexual manifestations for Blank, even if Anna, the first woman, is presented in slightly more noble lights.

"Anna smiles, then bends over once more and kisses Mr. Blank squarely on the lips. In that it lasts for a good three seconds, the kiss qualifies as more than just a peck, and even though no tongues are involved, this intimate contact sends a tingle of arousal coursing through Mr. Blank's body. By the time Anna straightens up, he has already begun to swallow the pills (Auster 17)."

The pills are referenced a few times as part of a mysterious treatment. Are the pills designed to help Blank remember or forget past events, namely atrocities? Is he a military leader of some sort? There are indications that people died or were lost carrying out his orders, although the nature of these are kept intentionally vague. The manuscript he's asked to read is written out within the novel and forms its own compelling story. It's a tale of competing tribes, military lies, deceit, and a young man carrying messages back and forth. It's fairly concise and doesn't confuse the reader, and the overall question is whether it's a true story or part of a larger plan to confuse Blank. Within the manuscript are sentences and observations that make Travels In the Scriptorium feel like a longer metaphor for literature itself.

"What's the matter, citizen? Are you afraid of the truth? His eyes were full of rage and contempt, and because we were so close to each other, those eyes were the only objects in my field of vision. I could feel the hostility flowing through his body, and an instant later I felt it pass directly into mine. That was when I went after him. Yes, he had touched me first, but the moment I started to fight back, I wanted to hurt him, to hurt him badly as I could (Auster 51)." (italics mine)



Travels In the Scriptorium works to a point if the reader quickly surmises that there's not going to be any grand revelation in the end. That's not the point of the novel. The plot and structure are merely boxes to deliver ideas about literature and its potentials. However, Auster makes the mistake of adding just one too many details, therefore ensuring an abrupt ending. If the story of Mr. Blank was told without the manuscript, it could have been fashioned to ask the same questions. If the story was about a man reading a mysterious manuscript and attempting to determine its legitimacy, without questions about his own life and the visitors, the same goal could have been accomplished. Again, Auster's prose is excellent, and his structure is a well-intentioned homage to the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, to name a few. But my biggest concern is that it doesn't shed any more light on the subjects. The questions are asked without a need to be answered, but they're the same questions that have been posed for decades. And as much as I admire Auster's worldview, I'm sure he's had his share of much too ebullient praise and much too harsh criticism (James Wood being the aforementioned example). There's a passage within the novel that jumped out at me and made me wonder if it was a sly stab at his own critics, or a humorous take on the nature of literature, since every single writer has his or her detractors. And maybe, just maybe, he's envisioning how readers will react to the story they're reading.

"Mr. Blank tosses the typescript onto the desk, snorting with dissatisfaction and contempt, furious that he has been compelled to read a story that has no ending, an unfinished work that has barely begun, a mere bloody fragment. What garbage, he says out loud, and then, swiveling the chair around by a hundred and eighty degrees, he wheels himself over to the bathroom door (Auster 84)."

And then, as if for good measure, this passage appears near the end. For dignity's sake, I like to read it from the point of view of a writer reading his or her own material. We've all been frustrated with output or a piece of fiction not coming together properly, and we've all envisioned this classic response:

"By now, Mr. Blank has read all he can stomach, and he is not the least bit amused. In an outburst of pent-up anger and frustration, he tosses the manuscript over his shoulder with a violent flick of the wrist, not even bothering to turn around to see where it lands. As it flutters through the air and then thuds to the floor behind him, he pounds his fist on the desk and says in a loud voice: When is this nonsense going to end (Auster 143)?"

Auster has a new memoir coming out this fall, and I believe it's supposed to be a sort of companion piece to last year's Winter Journal, which I adored. I'm thankful that Travels In the Scriptorium wasn't the first book of his that I read--if it had been, I'd likely be hard-pressed to continue. This may sound terribly harsh, but I say this as someone who considers Paul Auster a treasure, someone whose writings have had a direct influence on my own growth as a reader and a writer. I know what he's capable of doing, especially through his essays and prose. I'm going to carefully choose my next Auster novel, since the last two haven't held up to his non-fiction writings. But as I said before, even if I flat-out despise the next piece of Auster fiction that I read, it won't diminish his overall skill. I just hope that there's nowhere to go but up.

Work Cited:
Auster, Paul. Travels In the Scriptorium. Copyright 2006 by Paul Auster.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dashing: Chuck Klosterman's "I Wear the Black Hat"


My interactions with Chuck Klosterman's writings have been pretty up and down, and upon review, I'm amazed to discover that I've never written about any of his books. When I was in my early twenties, I was completely blown away by Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, his breakout collection. On the surface, the essay seemed like standard deconstructions of culture, but were infused with terrific humor, fantastic connections between seemingly random ideas, and the realization that Klosterman wasn't a pseudo-intellectual: his fascinations and knowledge did run in fantastically different directions. Since 2003, I've admired him, even if his occasional forays haven't held much meaning for me. One of my long-standing assessments has been: I love Klosterman, but hate him for spawning dozens, if not hundreds of writers who try to emulate his style. I was disappointed by Killing Yourself To Live, an account of his travels and thoughts on various music deaths; perhaps I was just hungry for a variety of subjects. I've pretty much avoided his interactions with Malcolm Gladwell, a writer I've had problems with for awhile. I've never had any real desire to read his two novels. And I never got around to Eating the Dinosaur, his 2009 collection. So while I'm nowhere near being on top of his collected writings, I'd still consider myself an admirer of his work, and this has increased a lot with my recent reading of I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined). The title is apt: Klosterman writes about the idea of villains from historical, cultural, and philosophical angles. I went into the reading with high hopes, since his focus on a sometimes abstract idea (villainy) would conceivably allow him to move among a range of subjects. I was correct, and this newest book came the closest to emulating the feelings of awe and discovery that I felt as young twenty-something reading and re-reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.

In the book's introduction, Klosterman sets up the reasoning in his standard fashion: as a teenager, he listened to a Metallica cover of a song by the British band Diamond Head that included the lyrics "Am I evil? Yes I am. Am I evil? I am man." As an adult, he reflects and considers the nature of evil, empathy, and image from the inside and the outside.

"I am typing this sentence on an autumn afternoon. The leaves are all dead, but still tethered to the trees, waiting for a colder future. Outside my living room window and three floors below, people are on the street. I vaguely recognize some of them, but not most of them. I rarely remember the names or faces of nonfictional people. Still, I believe these strangers are nonthreatening. I supposed you never know for certain what unfamiliar humans are like, but I'm confident. They are more like me than they are different: predominantly white, in the vicinity of middle age, and dressed in a manner that suggests a different social class than the one they truly occupy (most appear poorer than they actually are, but a few skew in the opposite direction). Everyone looks superficially friendly, but none are irrefutably trustworthy. And as I watch these people from my window, I find myself wondering something:
Do I care about any of them (Klosterman 2)?"

The opening essay explores three wildly different topics, but Klosterman manages to keep even seemingly divergent ideas grounded into a single narrative. It begins with what could be the most typically villainous act (tying a woman to railroad tracks, a narrative device first introduced in silent cinema), before exploring Machiavelli's philosophy (and the possibility of The Prince being a satire, which I've heard before and find very fascinating) to what truly constituted the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno's downfall. More so than I remember from his previous writings, Klosterman explores a vast number of gray areas. However, he's uninterested in rehashing old arguments. The media hurricane surrounding Paterno and the Penn State sex abuse scandal was its own entity, and Klosterman isn't going down that path. He uses Paterno as an example for his overall thesis, and manages to create a very apt definition of villainy. It's paired with an assessment of Nike CEO Phil Knight, who eulogized Paterno at his funeral with some poor remarks.

"All those imperfect denouncements are easy. But Paterno's vilification is harder. A handful of media bottom-feeders reveled in his fall, but only to play to the trolls. No normal person wants to hate a dead man he once admired. It feels abnormal and cheap. But what's the alternative? Paterno knew what was happening and chose to intellectually avoid it. He had to choose between humanity and sport, and he picked the one that mattered less. On the day he was finally lowered into the ground, his most adamant defender was the aforementioned Knight, a man who allowed Indonesian children to work in sweatshops so that he could sell $120 basketball shoes to fat American teenagers who didn't play basketball. And then--six months later--even Knight rescinded what he'd said. It was not a good look.

The villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least (Klosterman 18)."

A long chapter is devoted to President Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In this chapter, Klosterman weighs the various players, all of whom took turns as victims and villains in the dragged-out process. Later in the book, Klosterman declares himself as apolitical, and in assessing this overtly political scandal, he is true to his word. He's opinionated yet impartial, and manages to write intelligent passages about human sexuality, power, and politics without pointing any fingers, at least not in a biased fashion. Returning to my previous comment about gray areas, Klosterman's views on the position of the Presidency is a perfect look at how every President, Democrat or Republican, is in a position to veer into textbook villainy.

"So this is what people said: 'It's not the sex. It's the lying.' Which was totally idiotic and completely untrue.
Presidents lie all the time. Really great presidents lie. Abraham Lincoln managed to end slavery in America partially by deception (In an 1858 debate, he flatly insisted that he had no intention of abolishing slavery in states where it was already legal--he had to say this in order to slow the tide of secession.) Franklin Roosevelt lied about the U.S. position of neutrality until we entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Though the public and Congress believed his public pledge of impartiality, he was already working in secret with Winston Churchill and selling arms to France.) Ronald Reagan lied about Iran-Contra so much that it now seems like he was honestly confused. Politically, the practice of lying is essential. By the time the Lewinsky story broke, Clinton had already lied about many, many things. (He'd openly lied about his level of commitment to gay rights during the '92 campaign.) The presidency is not a job for an honest man. It's way too complex (Klosterman 119-120)."



Of course, I'd be disappointed if Klosterman wrote a book and didn't touch upon professional basketball. In a particularly illuminating chapter, he presents the public and private images of various athletes, and the one I found most affecting was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I never realized that Abdul-Jabbar has been viewed as a villain or as disliked figure: he's now universally beloved for his non-basketball work, and he retired as the NBA's all-time scoring leader; and as Klosterman and Bill Simmons have pointed out, his cameo role in the movie Airplane! worked so well because he lampooned his image at a time when people didn't realize he had a sense of humor or a more complex side beside that of a basketball great. Klosterman explains why and how Abdul-Jabbar was viewed as a villain, and how time has made this designation wrong. It proves that concepts and definitions can be wide-ranging, even for people (in this case, me and my overall view of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) who don't assume a person can be classified in a specific fashion.

"As he's moved into the winter of his life, Abdul-Jabbar has grown conscious of his image and has tried to evolve into a conventionally nice celebrity--which is disappointing on two levels. He has grown more patient with interviewers, partially because they have migrated to his side: It seems increasingly absurd that this intelligent, well-spoken, socially conscious person who is the all-time leading scorer in the history of basketball cannot get a job as an NBA head coach, simply because he's not super friendly. He had a cancer scare in 2008, so that generated some warranted sympathy; as an author, he's probably done more for the lost history of twentieth-century African-Americans than every other athlete combined. He made a cameo on a sitcom starring Zooey Deschanel, and it's so goofy and superfluous that only a jerk could criticize the decision. Muslims don't drink alcohol, but Kareem still endorsed Coors. If he's a villain, he's the best possible kind. Still, there are parts of his personal history that will never evaporate. He may ultimately be remembered more affectionately than anyone would have guessed in 1980, but that turnaround will always be framed as a surprise. He played the game, but he didn't play The Game. He refused to pretend that his life didn't feel normal to the person inside it, and he refused to pretend that other people's obsession with abnormality required him to act like the man he wasn't (Klosterman 173-174)."

These are just a handful of the essays presented. There are some that I enjoyed, even if I was detached from the subject (I think I can name two, maybe three Eagles songs, but enjoyed his take on the band's evolution). There are some obvious subjects--The Oakland Raiders, O.J. Simpson, and Adolf Hitler, to name a few--but again, Klosterman doesn't go the obvious routes. He digs, he opines, and he ultimately draws new conclusions on the nature of villainy. I'm sure more than one person has dubbed Klosterman a "pop culture critic," but that label really doesn't highlight his writing skills. He can be funny without being forced, and he can take on subjects that have been driven into the ground and write about them uniquely. His goals have stayed the same, but there's a definite growth here. For such a fast read, I Wear the Black Hat remains true to its thesis, and no matter how many different directions the essays go in, it never feels like Klosterman is rambling. As a reader, this book gave me everything I had hoped for and more. I think it's only appropriate that I eventually return to Klosterman's older works, even his novels, to give my opinions a more well-rounded foundation. For the scores of imitators he has given birth to, he remains an original thinker, blurring the lines between intellect, assumptions, and, most importantly, the notion of deep thought and expanded essays in an era of quick blurbs and bite-sized writings that try to pass themselves off as deep and stimulating.

Work Cited:
Klosterman, Chuck. I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined). Copyright 2013 by Chuck Klosterman.