three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
By: 
Paul Auster
user_rating: 
0

A-Travels in the ScriptoriumAwakening in a locked room with no idea of where—or who—he is, Mr. Blank, as the old man comes to be known, studies the mélange of objects scattered about the room and reads a manuscript account of a prisoner from an alternate world. A parade of people, some hauntingly familiar and yet outside the man’s memory (in fact, they are characters from Paul Auster’s previous novels), visit Blank. The whole ordeal, with its vague suggestion of a crime having been committed and an overhead camera recording the confused man’s every move, is orchestrated by an unseen captor. And so it often goes in Auster’s fictional world: stories nested within stories, and characters in search of an author—as well as their own elusive identities.
Henry Holt. 160 pages. $22. ISBN: 0805081459.

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Art is infection, Tolstoy famously said, and this book will infect you, like a disturbing dream that you can barely remember but that later pops into your head at seemingly random moments and offers, should you study it, clarity. … The howl that is this novel is the anguish of the writer at work, driven not just to do it but to do it right." Eric Grunwald

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Travels in the Scriptorium is part dystopian myth and part literary séance; allusions intersect with allusions, identities are fluid, the past is folded almost chokingly tight into the present, shadows of the truth have shadows. … Determined readers come to savor the inimitable way Auster keeps restructuring and vivifying his novelistic obsessions." Howard Norman

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Say what one will about Auster’s repetition of devices—the book within a book, the off-stage tormentor, the loss of memory—he has become frightfully good at manipulating a good story out of them. … One needn’t have read The New York Trilogy to appreciate the book, but it helps." John Freeman

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Unhappily, Travels in the Scriptorium is so profoundly self-referential and allusive that much of it will be lost on all but Auster’s most obsessive readers." Daniel Dyer

Providence Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"For the Auster fan, this short novel supplies some delight, as we recognize his characters and look upon the incarcerated fellow as yet another creature racked with guilt and eager to do the only thing he can. … But for others, this might be slow going and thin gruel." Sam Coale

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"The author writes, and a story unfolds, the purest possible demonstration of chance: characters only coming to be, events only coming to pass, because—hesitating at the top of the page—the writer chose to say this and not that. … Auster is usually brilliant at evoking this kind of contingency, but it feels thin and unsatisfying here." Sophie Harrison

San Antonio Exp-News 2 of 5 Stars
"While one could hardly expect Travels to be anything other than a thriller in the most cerebral sense, the novel still shortchanges us by landing somewhere unsatisfactorily between a pulp paperback mystery and a work of serious fiction. … While looking at art from heretofore unknown perspectives can be rewarding, sometimes Auster loses the plot, and an author should never forget the invaluable worth of a good story that has been told well." Adam Schragin

Critical Summary

Paul Auster dazzled the literary world two decades ago with the self-reflexive, playful New York Trilogy. A dozen novels later, he continues to draw on the familiar situations and themes that marked him as one of the most accomplished experimentalists. Critics often compare Auster’s multilayered tales of colliding realities and lost identities to those of Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and John Barth, though Travels in the Scriptorium finds a mixed critical reception. Current Auster fans will enjoy the intricate allusions and wordplay. Those coming to the author for the first time may find the book obscure—or worse, unengaging. For them, Moon Palace, In the Country of Last Things, or the New York Trilogy would be better novels for discovering the classic Auster.