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Travels in the Scriptorium: A Novel BY Paul Auster. Picador. Paperback, 160 pages. $12.

The cover of Travels in the Scriptorium: A Novel

Paul Auster should not exist. I say this not to mimic a sentence that might easily have been plucked from one of his own hall-of-mirrors fictions, but simply to note his singular position in contemporary American letters. He has enjoyed unlikely success by writing reflexive novels that take up notions of chance and fate, memory and oblivion, luck and the uncanny; given his self-referential leanings and taste for highbrow allusion, it might seem that he would at best have found a coterie of admirers and a university appointment to subsidize his writing. Instead, he has settled comfortably into a career as one of the most glamorous novelists in America. Abroad, he has even higher visibility, a genuine rock-star aura. Magazine profiles cite his movie-idol looks and general air of suave elegance, and although Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lives, may now be home to more writers than any other urban enclave on the planet, he stands out in his affiliation with the place as one of its presiding celebrities. He has branched out into subsidiary projects as a radio personality (having headed up a few years back NPR's National Story Project, which solicited anecdotal tales from listeners nationwide, later collected in the anthology I Thought My Father Was God [2001]) and a screenwriter and film director: Best known in this regard for his screenplay for 1995's Smoke (directed by Wayne Wang), Auster has written and directed the rather stilted Lulu on the Bridge (1998) and the just-completed The Inner Life of Martin Frost, based on material from his novel The Book of Illusions (2002). His work has also proliferated into media of unimpeachable hipness: Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli adapted City of Glass (1985), the first book in Auster's New York Trilogy, into a graphic novel in 1994, and the beguiling, mischievous French artist Sophie Calle has realized conceptual pieces based on his writings. These extraliterary manifestations contribute to a highly resilient cultural persona, gracing him, if you will, with a street credibility among chic young bookish types that has sustained Auster through an uneven career.

The Auster phenomenon is unusual enough to warrant consideration, and now would be an apt moment to do so because Auster himself is indulging in some retrospective stocktaking. His new novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, features characters taken from his fiction reaching all the way back to the New York Trilogy, the loosely interrelated novels published in the mid-'80s that remain, along with the remarkable memoir The Invention of Solitude (1982), his finest achievements. As Auster devotees with sharp memories may recall, the title Travels in the Scriptorium has already appeared as the name of one of director Hector Mann's films in The Book of Illusions, and as a whole Travels in the Scriptorium casts a long if purposefully distorted glance over Auster's entire body of work. Because there are sure to be readers eager to puzzle out the connections made to the rest of his oeuvre, it can be seen as the ultimate fan's book and, as such, as an affirmation of Auster's robust following. I'll come back to Travels in the Scriptorium, but first I'd like to survey Auster's career from a wider vantage. He emerged as a genuinely popular novelist and superstar cultural export only after respectable if obscure beginnings as a poet, critic, and translator in the '70s—his story is yet another refutation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum about American lives having no second acts. As he tells it in his memoir Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure (1997), the first act was a drama of increasing desperation as he scraped to get by as a writer with tastes inclining to challenging French poetry and difficult figures such as Laura Riding; the memoir concludes with the irony that when monetary woes compelled him to raise funds by writing a mystery novel (Squeeze Play, published in 1990 under the pseudonym Paul Benjamin), even that turned out to be an unremunerative flop. Setting aside his financial straits, his early career was also an effort to establish himself as a literary intellectual in a cosmopolitan, culture-bridging vein like that of Susan Sontag, building especially on his links to France, where he'd lived for a few years in the '70s, and his engagement with French culture through his criticism and translation work. The essays gathered in the collection The Art of Hunger (1991) are a prelude to the project for which he was best known before he hit his stride as a fiction writer, his editing of an anthology of twentieth-century French poetry in translation, published in 1982 by Random House.

His work as a critic (which has diminished though not entirely ceased) should be understood not as a false start, but rather as a prologue having strong continuities with his career as a novelist. The fusion of sincerity and intellectual modishness in his essays and appreciations also characterizes the idiosyncratic tenor of the New York Trilogy novels (City of Glass, Ghosts [1986], and The Locked Room [1986]): For if these books exhibit a postmodern gamesmanship, filled with narrative mises en abyme and vertiginous mergings of self and other, their ironies are nonetheless ballasted by a sustained authorial sobriety. The sangfroid displayed on the surface does not obscure an underlying earnestness, and it's clear that Auster would like us to view the dramas of identity and self-understanding in these novels as seriously as we do those of Everyman and Oedipus. And for the most part we do. In these books, he perfected the signature mood of passionate sophistication that pervades his work, in which the coolness of the technique is countered by the underlying intensity of his philosophical-literary investigations. Auster likes to write about basic desires and deprivations—one of his favorite words is hunger. At his most successful, one reads him with great interest as a writer who has earned the right to traffic in primary concepts and fundamental states of being.

The trilogy books set the template for the recognizably Austerian performance: Often revolving around a writer figure resembling Auster himself, and making liberal use of such conspicuously textual props as notebooks and manuscripts, his novels rather self-consciously aspire to take their place in a tradition of metafictional and philosophically minded writing stretching back to the more speculative efforts of Poe, one of Auster's touchstones. When reading an Auster novel, you can almost hear him pounding away on the anachronistic yet sturdy Olympia manual typewriter that he has so lovingly praised as his longtime partner in composition (in The Story of My Typewriter [2002], a collaboration with the artist Sam Messer), but not only are you always made to sense the writer orchestrating the action, it's as if you've been asked to wander his mind's labyrinth. For where else could Auster's schematic narratives be staged? Under moderate scrutiny, their real-world settings show themselves to be little more than pasteboard backdrops, and someone picking up the New York Trilogy might be surprised, in light of the title, at how little of the city's actual density and detail finds its way into the stories' texture: "Without stopping to get his bearings, he began walking up Broadway on the east side of the street. For several minutes Quinn toyed with the irrational conviction that Stillman was walking toward his house on 107th Street. But before he could indulge himself in a full-blown panic, Stillman stopped at the corner of 99th Street, waited for the light to change from red to green, and crossed over to the other side of Broadway." The urban setting is evoked primarily through names and numbers. With a few adjustments, the trilogy might have unfolded in Chicago or Montreal, which is to say its genuine arena is nothing less—and nothing more—than Auster's imagination.

Even in the novels in which he has shelved the metanarrative gambits for a more conventional storytelling mode, the outside world is rendered pretty thin, as if it were built from ready-made blocks. In Mr. Vertigo (1994), a fairly zany (for Auster) picaresque set in '20s and '30s America, the protagonist, a levitating boy who narrates his adventures with a folksiness meant to recall Twain and Lardner, is guided through a pageant of Americana—Chicago gangsters, fairground rubes, fleabag hotels, Klan atrocities—that, dark as some of its reaches may be, still seems prefabricated. And in a much better novel, The Book of Illusions, one finds a story that, like Bellow's Herzog, centers on a middle-aged humanities professor in emotional crisis (who, like Herzog, has holed up in a remote corner of New England), but there is little of Bellow's descriptive richness in Auster's spare evocations and none of the elder writer's nervy linguistic edge. Auster has protagonist David Zimmer explain early on, "I took a leave of absence for the fall semester, but rather than go away or look for psychological help, I stayed on in the house and continued to sink," a sentence that sounds rather bloodless when set beside Herzog's opening salvo: "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog."

Novelists, of course, are not obliged to occupy themselves with a fine-grained depiction of external reality, so in remarking on the abstract terrain of Auster's books I mean primarily to underscore how anomalous his success is. Simply put, neither American writers nor American readers tend to go in for the kind of fiction that Auster has made his specialty, and it's unsurprising that Auster enjoys not just wide readership but also prestige internationally, particularly in France, that well exceeds his critical reputation in the United States. In terms of influence, most of his American antecedents come from the nineteenth century, with Hawthorne given special prominence—there is a studied disavowal of more recent precursors, not only of the panoramic realist novel but also of the comically exuberant, maximalist tendencies in the central line of American postmodernism. It may seem a small point, but think of how Auster refers to baseball—he does so frequently—throughout his writings. In contrast to the delirium of Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., the wicked farce of Philip Roth's The Great American Novel, and the magisterial reimagining of the legendary 1951 Giants-Dodgers playoff game in Don DeLillo's Underworld, it appears that Auster has deliberately rejected the playful audacity, unruly satire, and fascination with spectacle that these writers have brought to their treatments of the sport. The difference is telling of a more general gap in sensibility. Preferring to emphasize his motifs rather than to make outrageous flourishes—the moon symbolism in Moon Palace (1989), for example, is reiterated fairly exhaustively throughout the novel—Auster is a writer who graphs out his themes and patterns rather than exploding them in dazzling pyrotechnic outbursts. If his books are sometimes careful to leave a residue of ambiguity after one finishes them, they nevertheless exhibit an overall tidiness of scope and technique. In Auster's corpus, there are no admirable "ambitious failures" so characteristic of the past century of modernist and postmodernist writers, books whose shortcomings seem compensated by their authors' outsize or quixotic intentions. His novels are either executed successfully or they're not, case closed.

If Auster has staked out his own circumscribed ground among his cohort of writers, his novels are in one key respect linked to the zeitgeist of the past quarter century. This is his attraction to popular genres such as the detective novel and, in In the Country of Last Things (1987), science fiction; and although I don't think his use of these genres accounts exhaustively for his appeal, it is undeniably a big part of his success. (Moon Palace, too, owes a debt not only to crime fiction but also to the western.) He was not the first experimentally inclined writer to make use of genre fiction—top-tier Continental avant-gardists such as Michel Butor and Peter Handke had done so in the '50s and '60s, and on this side of the Atlantic David Markson had written pulpy crime novels and a western—but there was something undeniably fresh about the slender, enigmatic books of the New York Trilogy when they were first published, especially in the way in which Auster's seminar-room preoccupations were embedded within the rapid pacing, staccato dialogue, and other familiar conventions of the detective novel. Auster's embrace of genre fiction now seems prescient, because the status of such material two decades ago was not what it is today. We weren't so far removed from a time when Edmund Wilson's scathing dismissals of popular fiction enjoyed consensus among the cognoscenti. These days, in its pulp and movie manifestations, noir, for example, is as uncontroversially a source of national pride as jazz.

But while Auster's use of genre fiction is an instance of this seismic shift in cultural valuation, his position may be more old-fashioned than it at first appears. How much, really, does his mingling of literary and genre fiction blur the line between the two? The appropriation still comes across as a highly literary gesture; the allegorical names and the allusions make one abidingly aware of the book-smart author. Whereas we are encouraged to connect Auster's fictions to a grand lineage that includes Borges and Beckett, the genre borrowings seem merely instrumental. His cachet among fans of avant fiction notwithstanding, perhaps Auster is one of the last true highbrows, part of the final generation that could approach genre fiction and other manifestations of popular culture in this way without seeming reactionary. Certainly, younger writers adopt a different stance. Auster's attitude regarding popular culture as embodied in genre fiction contrasts with, say, fellow Brooklynite Jonathan Lethem's relation to comic books, which is one of immersion and conspicuous, detailed connoisseurship. Auster's admiration for detective novels is surely genuine but, when it comes to particulars, awfully vague. None of his critical writings gathered in Collected Prose: Autobiographical Writings, True Stories, Critical Essays, Prefaces, and Collaborations with Artists (2003) takes up the merits of a specific genre writer, and in Hand to Mouth, when recalling the period in which he steeped himself in detective fiction as "good medicine, a balm against stress and chronic anxiety," he writes: "I had been reading a lot of detective novels that year, mostly of the hard-boiled American school, and . . . I had developed an admiration for some of the practitioners of the genre. The best ones were humble, no-nonsense writers who not only had more to say about American life than most so-called serious writers, but often seemed to write smarter, crisper sentences as well." If such figures were indeed so insightful about American life, one might ask, then who exactly were they? Dashiell Hammett (whose Maltese Falcon contains an episode that plays a role in Oracle Night [2003])? Raymond Chandler? Jim Thompson? Auster doesn't bother to identify these "humble, no-nonsense writers" (the phrase is condescending, especially since Auster's repeated considerations of the writing life, extending even to its careerist minutiae, suggest that for him there is nothing humble about being a writer). One suspects if they were neglected modernists or French poets, he would have called them out by name.

Those smart, crisp sentences of hard-boiled fiction nevertheless found their way into the trilogy books and became the basis of Auster's style, at its best a lean and accessible idiom. Over the years, however, there has been a slackening and an unfortunate tendency to fall back on stock phrases, at times even outright clichés, and it gives one pause to discover that in his new book, Auster, translator of Joubert and admirer of Celan, allows himself to write of a surveillance camera that "the shutter clicks silently once every second" and to describe the breasts of one of his characters as "Sophie's somewhat pendulous but noble mammaries." The exploration of ideas, too, has not entirely lived up to its promise. Too frequently, his signature theme of randomness, for example, merely serves as philosophical cover for unlikely plot turns; in fact, given the gridlike feel of his books, the aleatory intrudes far less than one would think.

Travels in the Scriptorium, an arid exercise that is unlikely to win him fresh admirers, is the account of a day-in-the-life-or-fiction-thereof of an aging man called Mr. Blank, the latest in the line of solemnly metaphorical character names (joining figures such as Peter Stillman, Anna Blume, and Hector Mann). Mr. Blank wakes up in a sparsely furnished room in some murkily institutional setting, perhaps a prison or psychiatric hospital, but in any case a place run by authorities who administer some kind of treatment and keep him under full-time surveillance. The room may or may not be locked, and its objects have had their names written on labels. Mr. Blank struggles to get his bearings in a mostly amnesiac state—although he can't remember what happened yesterday, he vividly recalls a rocking horse from his childhood, and during the book's first sexual encounter he confidently asserts a personal history of uninterrupted erotic potency. Physically debilitated, he stumbles about his cell like a Xerox of a Beckett character, giving vent to a primal frustration with outbursts such as "IT WON'T DO!" shouted at the top of his lungs. (Beckett has had an obvious influence on Auster, who recently served as editor of the Grove centenary edition of his works.) We are told of Mr. Blank's travails by a narrator who is writing a report, presumably at the behest of the institution's unseen masters, though we will later discover that something else is afoot. Mixed awkwardly into the Beckettian milieu are ponderously psychologizing phrases like "What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt" and "A feeling of overpowering love washes through him."

Mr. Blank tries to make sense of his predicament through a sequence of one-on-one encounters with visitors to his room, all of whom are aged versions of characters from Auster's fictional cosmos: a former policeman named James P. Flood, who is mentioned in passing as one of author Fanshawe's characters in The Locked Room, the third New York Trilogy book; the kindly Anna Blume from In the Country of Last Things, who feeds, bathes, and sexually satisfies Mr. Blank; Samuel Farr, also from In the Country of Last Things, now some sort of doctor at the facility housing our hero; Fanshawe's wife, Sophie, a middle-aged woman who, while not as sympathetic to Mr. Blank as Anna is, also feeds him and lets him fondle her; and even City of Glass protagonist Daniel Quinn, Auster's "first operative." Other characters from past books are mentioned during the course of Mr. Blank's conversations, and typically Austerian props are provided to sustain his quest to understand himself—a stack of photographs, some with images of his visitors, and two typescripts containing drafts of stories. For readers who care about the ending, which "explains" the entire novel retrospectively, it would spoil things to say much about one of the typescripts other than that Fanshawe is its author. But the first typescript read by Mr. Blank tells a story that has already been described, two novels back in Oracle Night, as a "political parable" written by the novelist character John Trause (take a moment to unscramble the anagram). In Oracle Night, Trause gives a capsule summation of the story, there called "The Empire of Bones": "It's set in an imaginary country in the eighteen thirties, but it's really about the early nineteen fifties. McCarthy, HUAC, the Red Scare—all the sinister things that were going on then. The idea is that governments always need enemies, even when they're not at war. If you don't have a real enemy, you make one up and spread the word. It scares the population, and when the people are scared, they tend not to step out of line." The embedded "Empire of Bones" story is an obvious attempt to address something larger than Scriptorium's ricocheting games, and one presumes that Auster bothered to flesh out Trause's outline into a full-blown narrative because the machinations of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have suggested parallels to the climate of the early '50s. But Auster is no Orwell, and surely the current politics of fear, which has spun out unprecedented complications, demands something more trenchant than the threadbare fabulism on offer here.

With its earnestly literary atmosphere not far from self-parody, it's hard to imagine anyone other than die-hard Auster fans warming much to Travels in the Scriptorium. What makes the book so unsatisfying is how its whole scenario is a high-concept but ultimately pointless gimmick. This is always the risk hazarded by metafiction and is the standard knock on Auster delivered by his critics. Unfortunately, there's no refuting that view here. In the New York Trilogy, Auster surmounted the problem because its narratives were anchored by an unnerving feel for the self's vulnerability, the sense that any one of us might find ourselves suddenly confronting the revelation that even in life we are little more than barely sentient ghosts. Similarly, Auster's portrait of his father in The Invention of Solitude as a spectral cipher who lived his everyday existence as a kind of absence is at once harrowing and compelling. But many years have passed since he created these works, and in the interim Auster has lost connection to a true subject. In Travels in the Scriptorium, the insubstantiality of Mr. Blank has no real resonance other than to fill the echo chamber that Auster has made of his career. Despite the emphasis on the fundamental actions of his body—crawling, shitting, ejaculating—he remains, like the rest of the novel, a stillborn creation. A proper retrospective, by making us see things that we hadn't realized were there all along, should inject some fresh vitality into our sense of an author's work. Travels in the Scriptorium sucks out whatever life there is in Auster's invented universe, leaving a sterile vacuum of self-regard.

James Gibbons's essays about Richard Powers, Georges Perec, Nathalie Sarraute, and William T. Vollmann have appeared in Bookforum.