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Uncomfortably adrift with the bewildered Mr. Blank

PAUL AUSTER PAUL AUSTER (BEBIEO MATTHEWS)

Travels in the Scriptorium
By Paul Auster
Holt , 145 pp., $22

Paul Auster's previous novel, " The Brooklyn Follies, " a strong, entertaining book, was relatively mainstream. Most of the elements one usually associates with his work -- a character who's a writer, stories within stories, false or shifting identities, chance -- were toned down to the level of charming oddities for otherwise realistic characters living real modern lives. Memory, however, remained key. It was, after all, a novel of 9/11.

Now, as though all that pent-up postmodernism (in the best, most honest sense of that abused term) has burst forth in an anguished howl, Auster gives us the short, eerie, and somewhat inscrutable " Travels in the Scriptorium. "

It begins with a man sitting alone in a room, staring at the floor, largely in the same boat we are: He neither knows nor remembers who he is, why he is there, and whether he is a prisoner. Dubbing his hapless subject Mr. Blank, our narrator informs us 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." Weak and wobbly, Mr. Blank manages to get to the desk, on which are stacked photos and manuscripts, one of which he begins to read: a "report" by a man clearly a captive, alone in a prison cell. Soon people start coming in to feed and bathe Blank, give him pills, interview him, even service him sexually. All this "as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him." Classic Auster.

Although this novel will be understood best by those who have read Auster's work before (particularly " The New York Trilogy " or " In the Country of Last Things " but also " The Book of Illusions " or " Oracle Night " ) , not having yet done so might serve you better. You'll really be in Blank's boat with him : the ideal, if sometimes uncomfortable, situation for the reader of fiction. And it is the power of fiction -- all art, really -- to move you even if you don't fully understand it. 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.

Moreover, living in uncertainty is one of Auster's perennial themes, and certainly a central one here. He plots out how his characters know what they know, exposing their assumptions and how those assumptions affect their actions and thus their fates. For example, "Mr. Blank hears . . . the sound of a key entering the lock. Does this mean [he] is imprisoned in the room . . . ? Not necessarily. It could be that Mr. Blank has locked the door from within and that the person now trying to enter the room must undo that lock." Similarly, the man in the report, Graf, must decide whether the mission he was sent on is legitimate, or if he has been betrayed.

Even when trying to notice every detail and think things through, however, Auster's characters are often blinded by emotion. Blank's reason completely flies out the window when a particular "nurse" is in with him. More subtly and insidiously, Graf for a long time cannot even conceive that his wife might have betrayed him. Not to mention information the characters lack and physical conditions out of their control. Finally, as Blank, imagining an ending to the manuscript, tells his interviewer, "We're involved in a complicated story here, and not everything is quite what it seems to be." Auster's fiction -- and worldview -- in a nutshell.

Auster plays with us that way, too: "His mind is elsewhere . . . 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." We are tempted to believe that those three questions are the ones haunting Blank, that they're all part of the same question, or even that it's sloppy writing. But Auster is never sloppy, and the phrase "the question that haunts him" repeats throughout the book. Note also the shift from "him" to "us." To solve Auster's puzzles you must read both the fine print and between the lines.

Even then there is no simple or even certain answer. Take the camera snapping photos every second: if we flip through them quickly, it will appear as though time is uninterrupted -- the way film works. But the gaps are there, even if tiny and unnoticeable. Thus Auster's narrator, like his characters -- and us -- can never see every single detail, let alone fully parse the ones they do. And thus what we believe to be reality becomes suspect.

Heady ideas, but Auster is a master at exploring ideas without ever stating them or slowing down the action. Moreover, " Travels in the Scriptorium, " like any good book, cannot be reduced to a single point. But, as in " The Book of Illusions, " Auster has taken one story -- here, Graf's -- and built an even more profound one around it: a passion play on the writing process. 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.

At least, that's one explanation.

Eric Grunwald is a fiction writer, translator, and former managing editor of Agni.

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