Paul Auster’s aptly named Travels in the Scriptorium takes the reader on a journey through the human condition, which is astounding, exhausting, and fulfilling all because the reader has a sense throughout that the books delights and disappointments are life’s delights and disappointments. The book is not, in any traditional sense, pleasurable to read. Make no mistake. With his deliberately dry, encyclopedic style of narrative, Auster is not prone to cheap titillation. He is an absurdist author, as much as anything, and his novella deals with deep-seated questions of identity, knowledge, and existence. Travels will not make you laugh and cry and scream (except from boredom). It will make you think.
The premise of the story (and I give nothing away here, because there is nothing to give away) is that a certain Mr. Blank finds himself in an unfamiliar room almost completely without memory. Within moments of beginning the account, the narrator reveals to us that Mr. Blank, because of his strange condition, will find himself grappling not with trivialities but with more basic questions: “His mind is elsewhere, stranded among the figments in his head as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him. Who is he? What is he doing here? When did he arrive and how long will he remain? With any luck, time will tell us all.” As is so often the case, however, it turns out we don’t have any luck at all. At the end of the story–through the means of a less than sophisticated plot device–the narrator reintroduces the questions to us as if to say, “Just in case you forgot, these are the important questions that didn’t get answered.”
The questions that form an inclusio for the entire piece are presented as peculiar to this unfortunate man in this extreme situation, but it should be immediately apparent to the reader that these are the very questions which are universal to mankind regardless of circumstance. Who am I? Why am I here? How long do I have? These are the most foundational of existential quandaries which transcend time and culture. In perfect concert with his absurdist forefathers, Auster sidesteps the primal impulse to construct answers to these questions. He clearly finds it more compelling to thrust the reader headfirst into the brick wall of reality: these questions never get answered. They are phantoms which disappear the moment we try to grasp them, like the “figments” that dance around in Mr. Blank’s head throughout the story. Laments Mr. Blank, “I walk around the world like a ghost, and sometimes I question whether I even exist, whether I’ve ever existed at all.” He cannot prove that he is, not even to himself. How is he then to demonstrate conclusively where or when or even why he is? Unifying theories are no sooner expressed than they prove to be inadequate, the falter under the crushing weight of everyday experience.
It is this everyday experience which forms the meat of Auster’s tale and which makes the reading so dense. Auster takes pride in describing in minute detail every occurrence within the very limited frame of the story. Because of this, the story–like life–is both mundane and disgusting. Auster takes note of activities ranging from putting on a shirt to moving one’s bowls. The narrative consequently proves dreary, non-linear, scatological, and pornographic in the way that life really is. There is a certain irony to the realization that in spite of the fact that we must constantly stand up, sit down, bend over, consider inconsequential choices, and actualize our decisions, we can barely stand to read about Mr. Blank doing all these things and more. At one point–apparently not above teasing his audience–the narrator declares that he sees no point in describing with microscopic precision some normal activity of Mr. Blank’s, and the reader lets slip a deep sigh of relief.
This exhaustive account of nothing is not (or at least not entirely) simply to fill out the pages of what might otherwise be a very brief and hackneyed philosophical point. The reader’s navigation through Mr. Blank’s world becomes a kind of a reflection on how all life is supposition and inference and memory. Mr. Blank will dramatically vacillates from thoroughgoing empiricism (e.g. Mr. Blank sees no closet ergo he refuses to believe there is a closet, even though he seems to see the effects of the closets existence) to a fantastic epistemology which assumes causality in the most tenuous of circumstances (e.g. Mr. Blank health improves and so he assumes it has to do with proximity to Anna). Mr. Blank is a case study in the way humanity, no matter how noble our efforts or how convincing our self-deceptions, engage the world in ways which are ultimately inconsistent and indefensible. What Mr. Blank seems to know is suggested to be untrue. What he believes is impossible, the circumstance would seem to indicate is the case. What he considers important, the reader is inclined to think is trivial. What he disregards as inconsequential are the questions forefront in the other characters minds. Mr. Blank is a child and an old man and a type for all people.
There are of course countless other avenues which Travels offers to the reader’s mind. One that particularly delighted me was the narrator himself, who takes great pains to present his narrative as if it is the result of hidden cameras and microphones yet he has no qualms about telling us not only what we can see and hear but what Mr. Blank thinks as well and how many seconds it takes him to think it. The narrator is, at any given moment, a character in the story, an entity on the same plane as the reader, and an omniscient observer. (The conclusion is likely intended to shed light on this, but I won’t tip Auster’s hand.) At the same time, the story often seems to be trying too hard. Still struggling with the question of existence, Mr. Blank wonders, “When was the last time someone took a photograph of someone who did not exist?” This strikes one, or at least struck me, as more akin to a lyric from a hipster anthem than a serious philosophical musing. Then again, it would be possible to argue that Auster does this deliberately since only rarely do people express themselves with any marked profundity.
That, in the end, is the beauty of Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium: it is as much or as little as the reader wants to make it. Any reader may pick up the work and decide, with equal justification, that Auster is a deeply engaging philosophical novelist or a tiresome author whose lack of compelling plot leaves the reader with only a drudging, unrewarding prose to suffer through. For my part, I would recommend the novella to anyone who delights in absurdism, fiction with a philosophical bent, or offbeat novels in general. With the exception of an extremely disappointing ending–which was a grossly transparent attempt to dress cheap Hollywood tricks like serious discourse–I found the work to be successful at its most obvious goal: provoking thought.