Friday, November 16, 2007

Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster

Before Travels in the Scriptorium, I’d never read Paul Auster. Now I have to read everything he’s written.

Travels in the Scriptorium was an impulse buy based on the cover. I found an advanced readers copy at work. It was that simple. The book turned out to be anything but.

An elderly man wakes up in a simple room. He is being monitored. He’s essentially locked in. He can’t remember his past. He doesn’t know where he is. Over the course of one day, nurses and mysterious visitors reveal hints, but no solid details, of his previous life. There is a desk with a stack of photographs and a manuscript of a novel or memoir, half western, half post-colonial. The story, if you can call it that, consists of the man reading and trying to figure out what’s happening to him. It’s an extended Borgesian story within a story, and when it concludes, you’re left groping with questions and an eagerness to turn back to page one, to begin again with more attention, more questions.

Is Auster describing what it is like to grow old? Or is he making a statement on how lonely our interior lives really are? Perhaps he’s describing the creative process, with an emphasis on writer’s block. Whatever the case, like Borges, the truth is never revealed and we’re left with more questions than we started with.

A few months after I read the book, I read a review. This can be dangerous to do, and it was in this case. In fact, it was more than dangerous. It was extraordinary.

According to the review (NYT or New Yorker, I believe), many of the details in Travels in the Scriptorium, such as minor character names, are taken directly from Auster’s other work. Is this some sort of Paul Auster meta-narrative? An elaborate trick? A personal statement about the world Auster inhabits alongside the “real” world he and his readers share? Whatever the case, whatever the reason, Auster’s entire oeuvre is now on my reading list. This book was, is, a stand-alone gem, and I want more.

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