I’m concerned about Paul Auster well being. His new novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, is a bleak glimpse into the solitary world of novelists. More on that in a bit.
In a strange bit of circular literary references, I was introduced to Auster’s novels through Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts. A character in Hall’s book is reading an Auster novel while on vacation, and Hall himself has cited Auster as an influence. In the ultimate weirdness, Hall’s novel and Auster’s Travels in The Scriptorium, which were released very close to one another this year, both begin with the exact same set up: a man awakens alone in a room with no idea of who he is or how he got there.
The room is very austere, and the man may or may not be locked inside. It may be an institution of some kind. Various people come to visit the man in the room, most seem vaguely familiar. He’s not sure if he’s being held there, but the narrator tells us that everything is being recorded and filmed as part of the treatment. A treatment that the man has apparently volunteered for and may have even suggested. Some clues are presented by a stack of photographs and a stack of manuscripts that the man begins to read. It’s tough to say too much more about the story without giving the game away. I hate that.
The New York Trilogy (reviewed here) was the first Auster novel that I read and that was just a few weeks ago. Travels in the Scriptorium is the second. I’m glad that the Trilogy was still fresh in my mind, because several of the characters in Trilogy appear in Scriptorium. This is not merely self-referential or artsy, and it is central to the novel’s theme. I suspect that most, if not all, of the Scriptorium’s characters are from prior Auster novels. In this regard, the novel is more likely to reward those intimately familiar with Auster’s work than the casual or first time reader.
A clue to the real nature of the room comes from the title. A scriptorium is a room reserved for writing. According to the dictionary I consulted, these rooms were usually in monasteries. I may be giving too much away here, but Auster seems to be commenting on the confinement of an artist’s body of work as well as his relationships with the works that he has created. If the man in the room is Auster, as I suspect, I’m concerned for the author. Someone give him a hug.
This is a brief but powerful novel that definitely gets the reader to thinking. That seems to be Auster’s M.O. I’m late to the Auster game, but I’ll definitely be reading more. Next up will be The Brooklyn Follies, unless someone has a more pressing suggestion.