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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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Auster, Paul: Travels in the Scriptorium

  Amazon  

4 stars

An old man in a room. There's a bed and a desk and a chair that can rock and swivel and has casters on its feet. There is a bathroom and a door that may or may not be locked that leads to whatever's outside the room. On the desk there is a stack of pictures--photographs of people--a pen and paper, an unfinished, apparently fictional manuscript. The old man cannot remember who he is or anything about his circumstances. He tries to piece things together from the scant information he has--including the manuscript, which he reads--and from halting conversations with the people who come in and out sporadically to care for him. But his mind is not sharp and his groping for clues is ineffectual. Nor is his body functioning well--with the singular exception of his penis, which works admirably.

Reading Auster's novel, we experience the old man's frustration over his failure to remember things, but also frustration because of the man himself, because he is unable to react effectively to his circumstances--presumably a function of the medicine he's been given.

"He ponders the details of Sophie's recent visit, chastising himself for not having asked her any questions about the things that concern him most. Where he is, for example. Whether he is allowed to walk in the park without supervision. Where the closet is, if indeed there is a closet, and why he hasn't been able to find it. Not to mention the eternal enigma of the door--and whether it is locked from the outside or not."

For the reader, the experience is akin to having a frustration dream.

Auster is playing with us in his short book, blurring the boundary between reality and fiction and tormenting us along with his protagonist, nesting fiction within his fictional framework--some of the story within a story written down, some composed orally by the old man. We are invited to speculate about the relationship between the two stories--the main storyline and the story of the manuscript. (We may wonder, too, at the old man's acuity, despite his diminished state, when it comes time for him to craft a conclusion to the story in the manuscript.) In the end we are let it on what's going on. The revelation is interesting but not affecting or shocking. It's rather like an episode of The Twilight Zone, complete with a Rod Serling-esque wrap-up at the book's end. One closes the book thinking it clever, but ultimately forgettable.

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