Travels in the Scriptorium: A novel by Paul Auster

By Paul Auster. Henry Holt, 145 pp, $28, hardcover.

A man wakes in a room, alone. He’s dressed in pyjamas; the bed and table and lamp are labelled as such. A hospital? An asylum? “He can’t remember how long he has been here or the nature of the circum ­stances that precipitated his removal to this place. Perhaps he has always been here; perhaps this is where he has lived since the day he was born. What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt.”

Over the course of this ominous novella from noted American postmodernist Paul Auster, the man—whom we are encouraged to call Mr. Blank—finds answers. Whether they constitute the truth, however, is another matter.

Auster is known for playful, determined self-awareness. In previous novels—particularly the New York trilogy of the mid 1980s—he pitted eerily overlapping characters against one another: Mr. Black versus Mr. White, Paul Auster versus Paul Auster. So it’s no surprise that we’re engaged in filling in the Blank here. Yet it’s hard to believe Auster himself is engaged in the project. For a story so obsessed with slippages and overlaps of logic and belief, the structure is stubbornly linear: Mr. Blank sits in his room as characters visit one by one. The plot is equally narrow: he finds and reads a number of typescripts, he eats meals, goes to the bathroom, has some monstrously overwritten sex (“he savors the bulk and softness of Sophie’s somewhat pendulous but noble mammaries”), chats.

Okay, the beginning of this review is deliberately misleading: the man does not wake. He just is. It’s an important distinction, since there are no beginnings or endings in this story of recovery and loss. First Mr. Blank was not, then he is. Auster is aiming at storytelling itself, the doomed making of meaning out of thin air. Which is all very well—we know dreamers and artists are liars—but then he goes and spoils it by moralizing: “It will never end. For Mr. Blank is one of us now, and struggle though he might to understand his predicament, he will always be lost. I believe I speak for all his charges when I say he is getting what he deserves—no more, no less.” Whether Mr. Blank represents the author, God, the id, the father, Paul Auster, or any other figure of frangible authority, that’s a truth we could have woken to ourselves.