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R&R 138 | Travels in the Scriptorium

SPOILER ALERT – in order for this book to be properly reviewed, I'm afraid I do have to reveal important elements of the story. Do not continue reading this review if you plan on reading this book.

Paul Auster
Travels in the Scriptorium
First published in: 2006
This edition: Henry Holt, first edition
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8145-9
Genre: meta fiction
Pages: 145
Cover design by Raquel Jaramillo; photography by Nick Vaccaro


Prior to reading TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM, I've read 3 other novels by Paul Auster (THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES, ORACLE NIGHT and THE NEW YORK TRILOGY), and it's only good that I did. You see, if you are completely new to Paul Auster, this book will be confusing, and its meaning might pass you by. I really wouldn't recommend this as your first Auster book.
On the other hand, knowing of Paul Auster and his work will make this book more understandable, but also too predictable, too soon – a major downside. Either way I didn't feel like much of a winner with this book.

The book starts off in a typical Austerian fashion. An elderly man, Mr. Blank, sits in a room. Slowly – oh so very slowly – Mr. Blank tries to analyze the contents of his room, looking for clues to help him figure out who he is and how he got there. There are photographs on the desk as well as several manuscripts, one of which tells the story of a man living in a dystopian society, imprisoned – eerily similar to Mr. Blank's current situation. Mr. Blank has visitors he vaguely remembers, but most of the time he only feels intense guilt in their presence, and even more confusion about his identity. (The reader meanwhile 'sees' all: there are cameras and microphones, documenting everything.)

——————–[SPOILERS from here on out!] ———————-

In the very beginning, I had no idea what I was going to be reading and I am not going to lie, I was excited about figuring out the mystery of Mr. Blank's identity and the purpose of the room. I of course expected we'd revisit some of Auster's themes ("the man in a room", the book-in-a-book metaphor and other meta fiction techniques he uses to tickle the reader and his or her reading experience). I just didn't expect a literal rehash of his body of work. But that's what happened. I'll explain.

After we meet Mr. Blank, several other characters are introduced. We meet Anna on page 5 and a James P. Flood on pages 6 and 7. Familiar names to devoted readers of Auster's novels. Unfamiliar, yet, to me. For me, it was the name Peter Stillman (jr and sr) that rang a bell. The recognition was vague at first because it's been 5 years since I first encountered the names, but then it hit me that the Peter Stillmans are both characters in THE NEW YORK TRILOGY. After some quick Googling, I understood that both Anna and James P. Flood were also characters in works by Paul Auster. Other Auster characters join in: David Zimmer. Fanshawe. Sophie. Daniel Quinn. Etc.
I knew in that moment, upon seeing those names, what this book was all about. The mystery was solved. I was only on page 28.

Mr. Blank is obviously Paul Auster / The Author himself, locked in a room (his creative mind), suffering from writer's block, trapped and haunted by his own creations – characters he's killed off or made suffer in other ways. It doesn't get more meta than this: the author becomes a character in a book in which he is confronted by characters from his other books. The ultimate revenge! The ultimate predictability! The ultimate meta.

I had almost 120 more pages to go, but in knowing the above, I felt like I was wasting my time finishing the book (which thankfully only took a few hours; I honestly don't think I would have finished the book had it been 500 pages instead of the 145), and it frustrated me. I wanted to be able to properly review it, and so I had to force myself to finish something I had already finished in my mind.

Fans of Paul Auster might get a kick out of it: there are so many easter eggs! But I couldn't get over them leading to only THE MOST OBVIOUS THING, LIKE, EVER – so, so soon. If you expect me to a buy a book, the least you could do is give me some kind of challenge, as an "intelligent enough" reader. I want to be intrigued a little longer. I want to feel like I'm doing something useful with my time. This one was meant to be complex and deep, but in knowing how Auster rolls and what his themes are the book instead ended up being entirely too simple to bother with. A summary would have sufficed in helping me to understand Paul Auster, The Author, better.

Auster could easily be accused of being self-indulgent. I don't agree. I don't think Paul Auster wrote this to make a quick buck and stroke his ego. His previous works have revealed as much to me: the man is truly interested in writing about writing. It's his thing. But he's been doing it and doing it and doing it. This book was an exercise perhaps useful and insightful to him, but I didn't really have to read it and I wouldn't have, had I known what it was about first. THE NEW YORK TRILOGY is enough. I didn't need the DVD extras.

One notable thing that I wasn't happy with was that the only two female characters in the book, Anna and Sophie, were both Mr. Blank's "nurse" figures, giving him spongebaths (of course), jerking him off and letting him touch their boobs. It probably means something Freudian and unsurprising like how an author secretly lusts after the women he creates. Honest, sure, but I couldn't really appreciate it.
It almost makes me hope there will be a sequel to this book, where the women take revenge on The Author by hanging him up by his balls to teach him, all meta-like, how to *really* write strong female characters.

One positive note though: I found the locked room mystery as a literal mystery (is the door locked or ISN'T IT?!) amusing. Those are the kinds of nods I can value in meta fiction.

But my absolute favorite part? A particular quote from page 84. After Mr. Blank got irritated with that manuscript he was reading, he thinks to himself: "…regretting having wasted so much time on that misbegotten excuse for a story". Perhaps he didn't mean anything by it. Or the man is very self-aware with a penchant for cheeky irony, which I could then respect. Either way, Auster took the words out of my mouth. A fitting end, then, to this review.

R&R 036 | The New York Trilogy

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy
First published in: “City of Glass” (1985), “Ghosts” (1986) and “The Locked Room” (1986).
This edition (as a trilogy): Penguin Books 1990.
Cover design by Greg Mollica

The only R&R featuring Ava, sort of my alter-ego. It had to be her this time. You’ll possibly understand when you read this review.

One morning last February, I was standing right outside a Starbucks in New York City and for some reason decided to look down. And there they were. Three twenty dollar bills. I planted my foot down immediately – because it was windy there, around the Empire State Building. Then of course I looked around and waited for a couple of minutes, to see if anyone was groping their pockets or frantically looking for something. I could have yelled “Yo, who lost 60 dollars?” but we all know people aren’t that honest. Anyway, there was no one. So I kindly thanked New York, promised to give back to the city by visiting again soon and then I took Wil to The Strand to spend the money on a just cause. Books.

One of the books I decided on was Auster’s “New York Trilogy”, partly as a nod to the city, which serves as the atmospheric backdrop to most of Auster’s novels.

“The New York Trilogy” is in intricate work consisting of three detective novella’s, seemingly stand-alone. Each novella has its own storyline, all with common themes and elements.

“City of Ghosts” begins with a phonecall to Daniel Quinn, a writer, who is mistaken for ‘Paul Auster’ (yes, Auster features himself in the book), whose services are requested to help search for a young man’s father, one Peter Stillman. Bored with his life and lacking inspiration for his writing, Quinn decides to pose as ‘Paul Auster’ and takes on the job to find Stillman. Instead of finding much of an answer, Quinn instead slowly loses something… his grip on himself.
“Ghosts” is an interesting take on the detective novel, reminiscent of film noir (or a graphic novel). Blue is hired by White to spy on Black… but what if the spy becomes the one spied on?
Finally, “The Locked Room” is the one connecting the trilogy as a whole. A mediocre writer (the narrator of this third novella) becomes the literary executor for an old friend, who has mysteriously vanished. What happened, and why is it so hard to let go?

To me personally, this quote found in “The Locked Room” is a perfect way to begin explaining what Auster is trying to do: “The story is not in the words. It’s in the struggle.” (p.346 of my edition.)

In this trilogy, which is a wonderful example of meta-fiction, Auster is exploring the techniques used in the writing of detective novels. He’s looking beneath the surface of the novels in the detective genre. Identity is a big factor; each ‘detective’ in this trilogy is trying to find someone else, but obsession forces him to be confronted with his own self.
Introspection is another theme, which is evident from the fact that Auster has incorporated a lot of himself in this book, not only by introducing the character ‘Paul Auster’ but also by using the names of various loved ones for his characters (one character is named Sophie, also the name of his daughter. Another is named Daniel, the name of his son, and so on). Details such as these makes me value the idea that perhaps Auster writes to also explore himself as a writer and individual.

What Auster has accomplished is that the reader, initially a bystander, becomes a ‘detective’ too. Reading the trilogy is thrilling, adventurous even; I found myself on the look-out for underlying connections and patterns throughout the book. Trying to find clues, searching for possible predictions and what ties these three novellas together. The ‘detectives’ in the novellas become the watched; the readers are the ones observing them, trying to find anwers.

Are there any answers? There is some form of a conclusion, yes, but much is left unresolved. But that isn’t necessarily what makes a book great. “Oracle Night”, another one of Auster’s meta-fiction novels, was quite unresolved in many ways as well, but I learned to be more aware of the reading and writing process, not just to focus my attention on a satisfying conclusion.

What I gained from “The New York Trilogy” is to actually get a real kick out of the reading experience. I am a bit of a ‘detective’ now no matter what book I read.


R&R series (and its photos, reviews) © Karin Elizabeth 2008-2009

R&R 019 | Oracle Night

Paul Auster
Oracle Night
First published in 2003
This edition: First edition, Henry Holt & Company 2003
243 pages
Cover design by Raquel Jaramillo
Book bought in New York
Read by the same author: The Brooklyn Follies (and after this review, The New York Trilogy)
Flickr post

On one of his walks, Sidney Orr, a novelist recovering from a near-fatal illness, discovers a new stationary store in New York. There, he becomes mystified with a blue notebook, which he buys and uses immediately upon his return home. While using the notebook to write the manuscript for what could be his next novel, Orr's life is disrupted by odd events which he cannot explain. It's when his wife Grace suddenly disappears without a trace, that Orr finds himself helpless and losing control of reality.

When I started reading this book, there was so much to be excited about. Auster had plenty of material ready to be worked out more thoroughly, and a number of great and original ideas to continue on with in this book. But he did not work with them much, and left many questions unanswered, issues and mysteries unresolved.

However, this is not the main goal of the book. To have answers to everything and a perfectly rounded up plot.

Like many of Auster's other books, we're looking at a work of meta-fiction: a novel where the act of writing fiction in itself is found to be the most important subject of the book. It's almost like an open demonstration about fiction and methods used to construct it. Meta-fiction, I suppose, for its writer is about the "road taken", and not about the destination. The Finished Project is, in this case, rather irrelevant.

Auster uses many clever tricks to explore the elements of fictional writing. There is the use of footnotes and the novel-in-a-novel structure of the text. The protagonist is a struggling writer. Even the book's jacket design reminds me of a blue notebook.

This is a book which will leave many of its readers to feel immensely disappointed, because of the lack of closure. But this is why Oracle Night is perhaps a very brave book, one that could teach its readers, and other writers, to think more about what is written right now, instead of "what happens next" and to be more aware of the act of writing in itself. Or, the art of writing.

Oracle Night took a suprising form which I can accept and check out further. It definitely tickled my brain a little, and now intrigues me enough to go ahead and try out some other works in order to better understand what Auster and other metafiction authors are trying to make their readers explore. Because no, Oracle Night alone did not make me understand metafiction as I now think I am supposed to understand it. But it got me thinking about this different side to both reading and writing. And I think that side of it is quite interesting.

(It was a while later, when I read The New York Trilogy, that a lot more became clear to me regarding metafiction. The New York Trilogy will be reviewed as part of my reading & reviewing series later on.)


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