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.
Auster, Paul. Travels In the Scriptorium. Copyright 2006 by Paul Auster.