27 February 2007

Familiar or not

Paul Auster Playfully Examines What It Means To Read
By Richard Gaughran - The Daily News Record - Harrisonburg Virginia

To put matters simply, novels come in two varieties. The more familiar creates an alternative reality, allowing us to enter a make-believe world. The less familiar doesn’t necessarily invite us into an alternative world, because it never lets us forget that we’re reading.
In more familiar fiction, it matters only that we play along with the novel’s creator. We strike a deal: make the make-believe believable and we’ll accept, at least while we’re reading, that the fictional world is real.
Writers of this type of fiction can differ widely. They might present domestic dramas, as the Bronte sisters do; recreate history, as Leo Tolstoy does; or concoct a fantasy epic in the manner of J.R.R. Tolkien.
We feel we know the characters in these novels, whether we sympathize with them or not. These are the kinds of works we’re referring to when we say we’re going to "cuddle up with a good book." We may grow in knowledge from reading, and we may feel morally or emotionally invigorated, but we are undoubtedly also escaping.
In the less familiar kind of fiction, we strike a different bargain with the author, one that requires us to assist in the work’s creation. Instead of embracing alternative worlds, we must cope with constant reminders that we are sitting in our chairs, holding a manufactured object, reading words.
These books don’t allow us to get chummy with their characters, because they never insist that the characters are real. We’re less likely to cheer or frown at characters’ actions than to examine our own role as readers.
Most works in this second category have appeared since the First World War, created by writers such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges. These writers can appear difficult, since they never let us relax, keeping both hemispheres of our brains firing.
I offer this bit of pedantry to put into context Paul Auster’s new novel, "Travels in the Scriptorium." As we might guess from the title, this short work is decidedly of the second type. A scriptorium, after all, is a room set aside for the writing or copying of texts. The reference to travels within such a confined space announces irony at the outset.
Auster’s novel presents itself as a report about a man confined to this room. A tiny camera records his actions, and an unnamed narrator seemingly draws on the photographic evidence to construct the old man’s story, without reference to a world beyond the scriptorium, or even to the character’s past, except in fleeting moments, as though the world is a dream the man has had.
The narrator ostensibly has no other information about the man than what the hidden camera reveals: "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. For the moment, our only task is to study the pictures as attentively as we can and refrain from drawing any premature conclusions."
The narrator is being disingenuous, however, since he can’t refrain from immediately giving the character a name, Mr. Blank. He also supplies the character’s thoughts and feelings, which the camera cannot record.
Mr. Blank’s room contains a bed and a desk, on which rest photographs of people he doesn’t recognize. As he stares at the photo of a young woman, however, the name "Anna" floats into his mind, as though he once knew her but has lost his memory. The narrator also notes that pieces of tape have been affixed to objects in the room, each bearing the name of the object. "On the bedside table, for example, the word is TABLE. On the lamp, the word is LAMP."
Mr. Blank cannot determine the nature of his imprisonment, if indeed he is imprisoned. But he notices a manuscript on the desk, and he begins reading. It’s the narrative of a prisoner, someone who has been locked in a cell, from where he has evidently composed his report. We then read along with Mr. Blank, but, like him, we’re interrupted by visitors to the scriptorium, some bringing meals or mysterious colored pills, some asking cryptic questions or delivering veiled instructions.
One such intruder, an ex-policeman named Flood, says he desperately needs to question Mr. Blank about a passage in a novel by someone named Fanshawe. Flood claims that Mr. Blank once wrote a report on Fanshawe, referring to Fanshawe’s novel "Neverland," which describes one of Flood’s dreams. Mr. Blank has no memory of reading this book, but Flood pleads for help, insisting that only a recollection of that dream can restore his identity: "Sometimes I question whether I even exist. Whether I’ve ever existed at all. The dream is my only chance."
Obviously, this sort of cleverness won’t appeal to everyone. It’s probably no coincidence that Auster’s most recent literary endeavor, before this novel, was to edit an edition of Samuel Beckett’s complete works.
Beckett, who would have been 100 in 2006, perfected minimalist, self-referential, highly humorous writing of this type. Auster’s novel pays fitting tribute to a master.

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