Monday, 27 December 2010

Travels in the Scriptorium [2006] by Paul Auster

Having finally finished War and Peace I've decided to read lots of short books in quick succession to get my yearly quota up. I'm a newcomer to Auster and decided now is as good a time as any to break into his ever growing bibliography with Travels in the Scriptorium, a compact post-modern experiment running to 130 pages.

I'm a sucker for tricksy novels and self reflexive narratives and, as much as it is a cliché, I do enjoy authors writing themselves into their own novels, with Kurt Vonnegut's repeated personal appearances being a particular favourite. However, what I didn't realise when I started the novel is that all of the characters in the book are drawn from previous Auster novels, apart from the protagonist Mr Blank. This put me at somewhat of a unusual position whilst reading the book as I began to ask myself who are these minor fleeting characters with their mysterious vaguely alluded to histories and backstories. In such an allegorical book I started to read in to each character, trying to pin some sort of emotion or association on to them. This proved to be something of a dead end, as after finishing the book I found out that they were old Auster characters, and then everything fell in to place...

Mr Blank, an old man, finds himself in a bare room, apparently locked in, with no idea of how he got there or where he is. In the room there is a bed, desk, some paper and several manuscripts of half written stories. He is visited intermittently by people who obviously know him personally and have been had their lives seriously affected by Mr Blank's actions. Mr Blank guesses that he sends these people on 'missions' much like a spy master, often to unsafe or dangerous locations. He spends the day thinking about his position in the room, promising to himself that he will work at unlocking its secret, but never managing it due to a number of distractions.

A great deal of the novel takes the form of Mr Blank reading through one of the manuscripts which takes the form of an unfinished alternative history novel written by John Trause. Apparently John Trause (and anagram for Auster...) was a character in the New York Trilogy, Auster's breakthrough collection - again something I missed in my ignorance. Mr Blank is tasked to complete the manuscript himself, to come up with a middle and an end to the story, a feat of 'imaginative reasoning' designed to test his 'emotional reflexes'. Auster uses this subplot to toy with the concepts of clichés and literary forms in which the reader is comforted by a familiar plot structure (much in the same way that I'm constantly compelled by Westerns and film noir, even though they all roughly follow the same trajectory). At one point, the labels on all of the items in the room are switched somehow, and Mr blank has to re-order them so that everything makes sense. I'll admit, this section of the novel lost me, as I'm not too sure of the symbolism behind the labels and their sudden randomisation.

The novel then is a (obvious?) metaphor for the process of writing and creation. Do we have a duty of care towards are creations? Are their stories ever finished? Do their fictional lives give the author a legacy, a kind of life on the page that will continue after the author dies, one that endless repeats itself each time it is read anew? And if so, how much thought, how much life, should the author instill in his characters?

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