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.
Travels in the Scriptorium
First published in: 2006
This edition: Henry Holt, first edition
Genre: meta fiction
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 â€“ oh so very slowly â€“ 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.