Paul Auster: Travels in the Scriptorium

The old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor. He has no idea that a camera is planted in the ceiling directly above him. The shutter clicks silently once every second, producing eighty-six thousand four hundred still photos with each revolution of the earth. Even if he knew he was being watched, it wouldn’t make any difference.

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Why I read it

My last (and first) foray into Mr Auster’s work was a disaster of false advertising. But when I went back to my local second-hand bookshop recently, the pile of Paul Auster books looked so shiny and solid and crisp and new that I decided to give his work another go. The blurb inside the front flap of this short novel had a classic hook.

An old man sits in a room, with a single door and window, a bed, a desk and a chair. Each day he awakes with no memory, unsure of whether or not he is locked into the room. Attached to the few objects around him are one-word, hand-written labels and on the desk is a series of vaguely familiar black-and-white photographs and four piles of paper. Then a middle-aged woman called Anna enters […] Who is this Mr Blank, and what is his fate? What does Anna represent from his past – and will he have enough time to ever make sense of the clues that arise?

This premise of a mystery in a contained, constricted system has for some reason always been really enticing to me. Maybe it reflects my diamond (as opposed to compost) tendencies; the preference for physics over biology; the desire to start from first principles and then complicate when necessary, as opposed to beginning with the chaos of the world and simplifying from there. In any case, I wanted to crawl into this white room with Mr Blank and start deciphering clues. I bought the book.

Timing and expectation are everything

One night soon afterwards I was having trouble sleeping, and the quiet, closed, dark space of the night seemed to be built for delving into the Scriptorium. I read it in one sitting, in bed, late. It was satisfying from start to finish, and then I slept.

Many comments on Goodreads, and some reviews in newspapers, express either frustration or disappointment with this book. People who have read a lot of Auster’s previous works are sometimes disappointed with the story’s relative simplicity. People who haven’t read any other Auster can be frustrated when they realise the story references other Auster characters, as if they feel they are missing out on something. And many others just seem frustrated by the slow plodding of the protagonist, who does little except observe his bodily functions (vomiting, pissing, shitting, ejaculating), think about an unfinished draft he has found on a table, feel vague but distressing echoes of guilt, and continually forget to check whether the door to his room is actually locked.

I don’t share these criticisms. In the timeless dark of the night I enjoyed patiently following Mr Blank’s day, listening and observing as each new character that enters the room gives more hints about what might be going on. I recognised one name as a character from City of Glass, which clued me in to the nature of Mr Blank’s situation, but it didn’t bother me that I didn’t know the back stories to other characters. The clarity of description of the bodily functions, amidst the haziness of thought and memory, just emphasised that Mr Blank has been reduced to a more primitive animal state in this room; he is helpless, reliant on the kindness or cruelty of others, and with no world of importance to him outside the walls, even if he could access it.

So what happened? Warning: contains spoilers and speculation

Out of all the comments and reviews I’ve read (many of them unafraid of discussing the ending, spoilers and all), only one I’ve found actually bothers to discuss what they think is actually going on in the room, beyond the infantile bragging/slagging about having ‘guessed the twist … I knew Mr Blank was a writer and the visitors were his characters since, like, page 25.’

Great… but what, then, is the medication he is given, and what is its purpose? What is the significance of the labels on the objects, and the way they are changed around, mid-novel? What is going on with how he reads and finishes the draft story on the desk? Why is he being observed? What is Auster trying to say about himself when he characterises himself (is it himself?) as Mr Blank? Given that all the female characters are placid and compassionate and willing to physically pleasure Mr Blank just because they feel sorry for him, and all the male characters are smart, rational professionals treated as equals, is the novel as sexist as it seems, and if so, why?

I have two different hypotheses that cover some but not all of these points: the Sanitarium, and the Quarantine.

The Sanitarium Hypothesis is that Mr Blank’s room is the Scriptorium of the title, representing Script + Sanitarium: a special hospital for writers. In this scenario, the book is about the plight of the writer, and the room represents the retreat of the obsessive writer into his own skull. He never checks whether the door is locked because he never really wants to leave: he prefers the inner world of his imagination to the external realities of life – or maybe he has let himself become trapped by habit over time. He is troubled by the things he is able to do on the page, things that are often inconsistent with his real-life personality: he kills mercilessly, he sentences to fates worth than death, he humiliates, he abandons his characters. Occasionally he has writer’s block, and engages some other facet of his personality to help him work through a problematic plot, the demonstration of which shows us how easily and necessarily he torments his characters. He wonders what would happen if those characters were ever able to decide his own fate, and after pondering that, he writes a book called ‘Travels in the Scriptorium.’

The Quarantine Hypothesis is that the book is not about the Creator, but we the people who have been created. What if we, the ordinary people of the world, discovered that our lives have indeed been scripted by an Almighty being, and realised we now had control over him? Would we love him for creating us or hate him for making us suffer? Would we be compassionate, realising that our fates were dictated by a greater pattern, or merciless, having recognised that an all-powerful being is able to change a pattern whenever he likes? Would we give him reprieve, as Anna and the Report Writer do, or would we ask for him to be hung, drawn and quartered, as the braying masses demand?

I realise now that the two scenarios are not mutually exclusive.

At the end of it all, though, I still don’t understand what the medications are for, nor why the words changed around. I haven’t read any plausible explanations, either. This means either something extra clever is going on that I’ve missed (entirely possible) or else Auster has just inserted random elements just to be complicated or obfuscatory. If you can shed any light, or hazard your own guesses, I’d be grateful.

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This book was mostly read in bed late at night.

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