FICTION

The Strange Hours of Mr. Blank

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By Reviewed by Howard Norman
Sunday, March 4, 2007

TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM

By Paul Auster

Henry Holt. 145 pp. $22

Determined reading keeps the mind's attention. And you will want to be very determined in reading Paul Auster's fictional treatise on crime and amnesia, Travels in the Scriptorium. It's not the characters or plot that is difficult to keep tabs on but your own emotions, as this is a chilling story of isolation.

The setup is this: An old man, known only as Mr. Blank, wakes up in a sparsely furnished room. "He can't remember how long he has been here," Auster writes, "or the nature of the circumstances that precipitated his removal to this place. Perhaps he has always been here; perhaps this is where he has lived since the day he was born. What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt. At the same time, he can't escape the feeling that he is the victim of a terrible injustice."

Because this is an Auster novel, writing itself has, almost inevitably, a spectral presence: Soon Mr. Blank begins to read a manuscript he finds on the desk. It's a harrowing account of another prisoner, Mr. Blank's doppelgänger. This account immediately becomes part of a narrative duet. As time passes, characters from the manuscript show up, each slightly familiar to Mr. Blank, each delivering shards of his past life. Altogether they constitute an uncanny guest list of interlocutors. As a result of their visits -- visitations -- Mr. Blank becomes convinced that he may well have done dreadful things to these characters (some are from Auster's previous novels!). What's more, everything is recorded by an overhead camera and hidden microphone.

Anna is Mr. Blank's most merciful visitor; yet in the way she sponge-bathes and even sexually services him, in her almost perversely accommodating conversation, scenes with her are mesmerizing and uncomfortable in equal measure. Auster keeps upping the voyeuristic ante: "It should be noted that a second camera and a second tape recorder have been planted in the bathroom ceiling, making it possible for all activities in that space to be recorded as well, and because the word all is an absolute term, the transcription of dialogue between Anna and Mr. Blank can be verified in every one of its details." With this passage, a reader understands that Mr. Blank will keep no secrets, except possibly from himself.

Anna, another caretaker named Sophie, an ex-policeman named James P. Flood, a doctor named Samuel Farr -- all mention treacherous "missions" Mr. Blank sent them on in the past. Then there's that manuscript. It delineates a newly formed country called the Confederation and specifically chronicles the political quagmires of a certain Sigmund Graf, who, when he returns from a dangerous assignment in the forbidden Alien Territories, is sentenced to death.

In this and other aspects, Travels in the Scriptorium is part dystopian myth and part literary seance; allusions intersect with allusions, identities are fluid, the past is folded almost chokingly tight into the present, shadows of the truth have shadows. All of this refracting inventiveness is why Auster is often referred to as a master of the metaphysical detective story. While in these pages there's no actual detective working a beat, still, as revelation after revelation is delivered, the reader is kept on edge, guessing until the very end.

Auster is one of our most intellectually elegant writers. He has persistently subverted the ordinary mechanisms of suspense, chronology, even genre. In certain fundamental attributes, this new novel resembles his Oracle Night, published in 2003. Yet determined readers come to savor the inimitable way Auster keeps restructuring and vivifying his novelistic obsessions. Themes are hungry ghosts, Borges said. Fortunately, Auster's ghosts are insatiable. ·

Howard Norman's new novel is "Devotion."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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