There comes a point when many writers seem to retreat inside themselves and produce a novel purely concerned with the workings of the inside of their own head. Such novels are easily recognisable: the setting tends to be a bare room, the cast is limited to one (with any other figures acting out roles rather than being developed characters), and the resolution, if not death, is stasis. One notable example of the type is John Fowles's late, weird, psycho-sexual meditation on creativity, Mantissa. Now Paul Auster has added to this small and not exactly welcome sub-genre with Travels in the Scriptorium.
In many ways this is not an unexpected book. Auster's postmodern games have often involved re-using the same limited cast of characters, notably himself. In the first part of The New York Trilogy (1985), for instance, a writer called Quinn is mistaken for a private detective called Paul Auster. Other works involve a writer with the not exactly impenetrable name of Trause. So when Quinn and Trause reappear in this new novel, along with characters from In the Country of Last Things (1987), Moon Palace (1989), Leviathan (1992), and Oracle Night (2004) among others, it seems like a return to familiar territory. Yet the coldly intellectual games that were a feature of the early novels have been steadily replaced over recent novels—such as The Book of Illusions (2003), Oracle Night and especially The Brooklyn Follies (2005)—with a warm humanity, a devotion to emotional realism over intellectual experiment. It means that the appearance now of a book that would fit far more comfortably beside The New York Trilogy than it does beside The Brooklyn Follies comes as a disorienting shock. Is this an old manuscript that has lain unregarded in a desk drawer for the last twenty-odd years? Internal evidence would suggest not. Does it signal a reversion to old interests, marking The Brooklyn Follies out as an anomaly? But in a succession of works going back at least to Mr Vertigo (1994), it is Travels in the Scriptorium that appears the more anomalous. Are there, then, two writers, humanist and postmodernist, co-existing in Paul Auster? Perhaps. Certainly this brief tale can be read as a private exorcism never really intended for publication.
We start with a nameless man sitting on the edge of a bed in a room so bereft of features that everything carries its own little identifying label: desk, wall, etc. At times as we follow this man through his day we see things from his perspective, more often we are outside watching. Indeed, many times the narrative refers to itself as a report, though who is reporting to whom and for what purpose is unclear. We never know whether the room is a prison cell, a hospital ward, or simply a room in his home; at times it seems to be all three. The door may be locked, though occasionally it is implied that the man is free to go out to a nearby park. Whether he is free or not, he remains where he is. It is, in other words, a classic entrapment fantasy, a dream narrative, and Auster makes little effort to make it appear any more solid than that.
Occasionally the man has visitors. Anna, who may be on his side, helps him dress, supervises embarrassing toilet procedures, and indulges him in a little sexual fondling. James P. Flood, an ex-policeman, who may not be on his side, asks questions he cannot answer, mostly because he has no context to even understand the question. Flood claims to have visited the day before, but the man has no memory of this. Everything outside this room and this day is blank to him: he is identified as Mr Blank.
On the desk there are photographs, some of which at least are revealed to be of the complete strangers who visit him during the day. On the desk also is the beginning of a story. This is an alternate history story about an America in which, we might guess, the Louisiana Purchase never took place. It is a story of imprisonment and of betrayal, and it is incomplete. It is also a story that has cropped up within a previous Auster novel that turned into an entrapment fantasy: Oracle Nights. Mr Blank is encouraged to complete the story, though whether this will provide release, healing or simply closure is not explained. He does so, précising how it might develop, hesitating, changing his mind, providing alternative versions. Through this we learn that Mr Blank is the author, presumably the author Paul Auster since those who visit him during the day and the others whose names are mentioned to him, are all characters from Paul Auster's novels. And all have a grudge against their creator for the cavalier way he treated them, the lack of closure, the lack of happiness in their shadow lives.
And the day ends in the same oblivion that it began, with the knowledge that the next day will be the same, with the same visitors, the same story to be completed. This is the nightmare of the author, and in writing it down we might imagine that Auster has exorcised his past books—though whether we should be reading it, whether we were really intended to be reading it, remains an open question.
Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.