NOTE: I am running a contest to give away my copy of Travels. Click here for details.
I had planned to write a review of Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium for another site, but given my overall feelings about Auster’s works and my mixed feelings about this new book, rather than struggle to put it into perspective by the guidelines of the usual book review, I’m just going to go at it here.
Let me say two things right up front.
First of all, I didn’t hate the book; the first half was great reading, with a few bumps, and as a whole the book is not without its pleasures.
Second of all, that being said, this book was ultimately a disappointment. It has a promising premise, for fans of Auster’s New York Trilogy: A man with no memories, or at best hazy memories he can’t put his hands on, wakes up alone in a white room. There’s a desk with photos and a manuscript, and a parade of characters – characters from previous Auster books, and you sense as soon as that starts that Auster’s gone all meta on us again, and you cheer – visit him, by turns harassing him and supporting him, as he tries to piece together who he is, what he’s doing there, and whether or not he can leave.
It also starts off strong, but before long – for me, anyway – it descends into the obvious. There aren’t really any themes here that Auster hasn’t explored before. The most interesting part of the book is the manuscript, supposedly by John Trause (of the superior Oracle Night), in which another captive slowly unravels how he got there. There’s allegories – Auster is no fan of the Bush administration, and had stated around Brooklyn Follies release time that his next book would address what he sees as Bush’s mistakes. To a degree, it does, but ultimately any connection between this unfinished manuscript, the completion of it by Mr. Blank, and what it might mean to have a captive completing a narrative about a captive during a time of multiple wars, of "detainees" and torture and diminishing civil liberties, is lost in favor of Auster’s overriding drive: the torment of being an author.
Auster’s biggest weakness, for me, is the sense he gives in his writing of being unmanagably high strung. He seems to wear his "struggle of writing" as a badge – or rather, as a lot of badges; a whole suit made out of badges. (Honestly, even the author photo looks like writing this 140 page novel was draining as pneumonia plus mono plus three rounds with Cassius Clay.) It brings this to mind, from Wayne Wang, with whom Auster has collaborated in the movie world:
I remember one time on the set, I saw Paul getting very frustrated
with an actor. Paul had written all of this character’s dialogue
expressing anger without any swear words. The actor, however, simply
couldn’t say the lines the way Paul had written them. The more Paul
tried to correct him, the worse it got. Paul kept trying until he was
beet red in the face. He finally walked away whispering the dialogue to
himself over and over, as if affirming the certainty of it.
This weakness, whether accurate or not, seems to be the theme of this book. Except that the struggle of the author piece of it isn’t really played all the way though. The whole "piecing together clues of his past and the identity of
his captors" is a red herring. It goes nowhere, or at least nowhere
that feels like a payoff for the time spent getting there. The quality
of the writing goes up and down; an editor might have encouraged Auster
to find a less clumsy way to let us know about Mr. Blank’s bathroom
escapades, might have picked up on this:
It won’t do,
he mutters in a low, barely audible voice. Then, to reassure himself,
he repeats the same sentence, shouting at the top of his lungs: IT
Inexplicably, this sudden burst of sound gives him the courage to continue.
Inexplicably? Why is this inexplicable? It just doesn’t seem thought out. The great writing is the exception; all in all, this has some of the flattest writing I’ve seen from him.
That said, even as I was reading this and began to see where it was going to go, I still was excited by what I was reading. I didn’t recognize all of the characters, as I mentioned in a previous post, because I haven’t read all of the Auster books. But from reading elsewhere, I knew Trause would pop up somehow, and I knew Quinn would come into the story himself. This is where my biggest disappointment stemmed from, because while these former Auster characters come in, it’s only the slightest of connections to their stories of origin, along with their names, that identify them as those characters. They are, essentially, too removed from their original "worlds" to be of any interest, or of any real value to this book. They are cardboard cutouts. When Fanshawe’s wife arrives, she might as well be anybody. Quinn is a lawyer – ok, that’s interesting, so Auster envisions Quinn recovering at the end of City of Glass and going to law school? Or does this take place before that story? Completely removed from time? Or is this more related to The Locked Room? And why is it me asking these questions instead of a recovering Mr. Blank? Or anybody? This book could have been a masterpiece, if it were two or three times as long and the stories of these characters were actually taken into account as they moved into Mr. Blank’s world. It’s as if Auster wanted to weave together all his previous works, but couldn’t get past the outline stage, and that’s what we’ve got – 140 pages of outline. There’s little to suggest that these characters are actually who they say they are, given how little they seem to have in common with the Quinn of COG, the Sophie of TLR, and so on. It’s disappointing to see Auster thinking so little of his characters. He’s much more concerned with Mr. Blank. We aren’t.