Wednesday, October 29, 2008

REVIEWS: Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster

Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster. Published 2007 by Picador.

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I'm usually a big fan of Paul Auster, a dense, serious writer whose books I've enjoyed since college; one of my prized possessions is a signed copy of his wonderful New York Stories, which he autographed for me back in 1993 (or thereabouts) at a reading at MIT. I hadn't read him in several years when I opened up the slim, enigmatic Travels in the Scriptorium this past summer. Either he's changed, or I have, because I ended up disappointed.

Travels in the Scriptorium is a little book that I'm sure is full of big ideas. The story is about a nameless man who wakes up in a spartan bedroom in an unknown location. He doesn't know who he is, or where he is, or why he is there. Memories (or are they?) come in spurts and he relies on his visitors, whom he also doesn't know, to fill in the gaps and make sense of his world. As he goes about his daily routine, he stops from time to time to read a manuscript left for him, purportedly a story, which may or may not be fictional, about a man in wartime.

Little by little tiny pieces of information are revealed, but we never really get the whole picture, and in the end I found the constant drumbeat of conundrum after conundrum dreary and unsatisfying. It would have been nice to have these ambiguities resolved and have at least some things explained; it would make the man's situation more tangible and emotionally involving to know more of what is going on. It's really hard to work up empathy for a nameless, generic injustice or irony. I say I'm sure the book is full of big ideas because I have confidence in Auster as a writer and I'm sure the ambiguity is deliberate but I think I prefer my literature a little more concrete. I'm not sorry I read Travels in the Scriptorium but it certainly will not rank among my favorites.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.