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Peer Review: Paul Auster Perplexes

By (April 1, 2007) One Comment

In this monthly feature, we review the reviewers who review new books

A fairly conclusive sign that a book has confounded its reviewers’ critical faculties is when the reviewers in question aren’t even sure just what the book is. I can certify that the words “A Novel” appear on the front cover of Paul Auster’s newest release, Travels in the Scriptorium, yet, “about a third of the way through,” writes Allen Barra for Salon, “you may get an odd sense that you’re not reading a real novel.” John Freeman in the Philadelphia Inquirer Review labels it a “short, brisk, odd little fable,” and in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Daniel Dyer calls it a “spare, sometimes puzzling allegory of the mind of a novelist.” Steven Poole in The New Statesman says it is “a sort of manifesto.” Lightheaded with enthusiasm, Howard Norman in The Washington Post writes that it’s a “fictional treatise on crime and amnesia,” and then, mere paragraphs later, calls it “part dystopian myth and part literary séance.” But Norman is a model of precision compared to The Los Angeles Times’s Tim Rutten:

It is possible to read the entire narrative as a fable on the fate of this nation’s detainees in places such as Guantanamo or the CIA’s secret prison network. It also is possible to read it as an homage to the modernist master in whose shadow Auster has worked, Samuel Beckett.

Rutten concludes:

[Readers] may choose to read this elegant little book as an allegory of their country’s current predicament, as a writerly conceit, or as a wider comment on the modern condition…perhaps all of those things—or something else.

No doubt readers may have any number of interpretations, but as Rutten was presumably one of those readers it would have been nice if he had bothered to tell us what he thought.

Fable, allegory, manifesto, treatise, myth, homage, exercise (James Gibbons’s word in Bookforum), “comment on the modern condition”: since Travels in the Scriptorium is only 145 pages long—its brevity is nowhere disputed, although those who like the book call it “spare” and those who dislike it call it “skimpy”—some equivocation is detectable here.

Fortunately other aspects of Auster’s book are more definite. “An old man sits alone in an empty room,” begins Alfred Hickling in his review in The Guardian, and because this one sentence not only sums up the bulk of the plot of this postmodernist work, but more or less gives away its ending (Hickling goes so far as to say, “you could make a case that Auster’s entire oeuvre revolves around an obsessive return to this image of an empty room.”), the line must be repeated with variations in every review written. “An old man. A plain room,” begins Killian Fox in the London Observer. The premise is clear enough. And equally clear is the dominant literary inspiration behind such a premise. Of the sixteen reviews I have before me, eight point back to Samuel Beckett. (For Yvonne Zipp in the Christian Science Monitor the book is a “sort of literary birthday present” to Beckett and to Gibbons the main character Mr Blank is a “Xerox of a Beckett character.”) Half of these references make a more specific connection to Beckett’s morose creation, Krapp.

Some unanimity is taking shape, and yet even within the agreements are telling dissensions. Three reviewers state that Auster is playing “parlor games”; but while to Hickling the phrase is a condemnation, to Jack Marx of The Sydney Morning Herald it’s a compliment. Opinion on whether Travels in the Scriptorium is good or not is split nearly down the middle. It must be said, however, that the positive reviews tend to be vague or insipid (with one exception I’ll soon examine), and the negative pieces apply a much sharper critical scalpel.

Mockery is one way out of the muddle that Auster has made, and for a delightful example we have Sophie Harrison’s gleeful pillory in The New York Times. Gleeful pillories are rare commodities in this tastemaking periodical (pillories from Michiko Kakutani are common enough, but they’re never gleeful) and Harrison, a contributing editor at Granta, seems to revel in her anomalous position. She trucks with the reading of the book as a treatise on writing, specifically as a writers’ workshop lecture: “Travels in the Scriptorium even sounds like the title of a workshop, and the writing-school ambience takes a while to disperse.” Harrison files Auster’s metafictional phrases under chapter headings (“Four Questions Every Screenwriter Should Answer!”): she thinks the novel is little more than a tacky “How To Write” tract. One recurring tic she spots in Auster’s oeuvre is particularly funny:

It should be said that Auster is also interested in what stories are written on. He has always been a stationary fetishist: Sidney Orr is practically debauched by an attractive Portuguese notebook in Oracle Night…. Mr. Blank has it bad: as if the annotated furniture and the typescript-strewn desk weren’t enough, soon, with terrible inevitability, even the ceiling begins to resemble “a sheet of blank paper.” All the world’s a page!

We’re all too used to finding in the august pages of The New York Times the tepid ambivalence of a reviewer trying fastidiously to make nice in case he should come across the novelist at a party. It’s likely that Paul Auster and Granta are no longer on speaking terms and perhaps someone’s feelings may be hurt at a coming Park Slope sip-and-quip, but gentle reader, what is that to us? We need the severity of high standards and the aplomb of honesty, and Harrison’s exuberant piece throws into stark contrast the Times’s frequent failure to deliver on these terms.

Allen Barra is another reviewer who isn’t overmastered by the enigmas it’s his job to explain, and his review succeeds in its calm, rational disillusionment. Barra is well-versed in Auster’s tricks and can state with convincing authority which tricks work and which don’t: “When Auster gets cooking, he’s like a magician who can amaze us by sawing a woman in half; when he’s not, as in Travels in the Scriptorium, it’s as if he’s sawing away without a woman in the box.” (The pithiness of this last line also convinces us to overlook Barra’s mixed metaphor.) He’s able to describe the postmodernist games and remain unimpressed by them, and at the end of the book, although “Auster offers a sort of solution to his puzzle,” Barra writes, “none is wanted.”

Yet even Barra lapses momentarily into fuzziness when, discussing Auster’s gambit of having characters from his previous novels appear in Travels in the Scriptorium, he writes, “for those who enjoy this Russian doll-type mystery, [the book] is a feast.” A mere blip in a strong review, but keep an eye on the undefined “those who enjoy”: they loom large in the minds of our reviewers.

Jack Marx writes, “Auster has constructed a maze that none but his fans will want to find themselves caught in”—and the statement is all well and good until we realize that Marx seems to mean it as praise. So, is it good to be an Auster fan? Killian Fox ends his review with the fogged pronouncement, “Travels in the Scriptorium is not one of Auster’s major works but…fans won’t be able to resist consuming it whole.” Fans again. (Sophie Harrison briefly invokes “Auster fans” as well.) In another positive review, Peter Lalor, writing in The Australian, cutely but vaguely begins,

When Paul Auster told a South American newspaper he had “finished a small book around a month ago, maybe the strangest novel I have written,” fans across the world trembled with anticipatory fear and pleasure. Auster readers are masochists and obsessives, which suits just fine as their author is something of a sadist.

The confusion is only increased when Lewis Jones writes in The Telegraph, “if you dislike writers who disappear up their own wazoos, you should eschew Auster, but if you find them amusing, his stuff is state-of-the-art.” Again and again we’re informed that Travels in the Scriptorium will be enjoyed by Auster’s fans. All we know of these fans is that they’re masochists who are amused by writers who disappear up their own wazoos. Lalor adds that many of them have websites dedicated to the author. A strange abdication of the critic’s office seems to have taken place. Auster’s putative popularity has made some of our reviewers quail from making a definite judgment. If you tend to like Auster’s books, they say, you’ll like Auster’s book.

Just what these nebulous masses referred to as “fans” are drawn to is the question at the heart of James Gibbons’s long review, the best we have so far on Travels in the Scriptorium. Gibbons begins where other reviewers concluded, by writing that the novel “can be seen as the ultimate fan’s book.” Auster, he writes, “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.” Gibbons then proceeds, aided immensely by the generous column inches that Bookforum always allows its writers, to meticulously track Auster’s themes and affinities in connection with his fame. Gibbons’s tone is skeptical—he doesn’t like Travels in the Scriptorium—but his analysis is knowing and in-depth. He makes a particularly strong case that Auster’s popularity stems from his juxtaposition of avant-garde experiments with conventional genre writing:

[Auster] was not the first experimentally inclined writer to make use of genre writing…but there was something undeniably fresh about 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…. These days, in its pulp and movie manifestations, noir, for example, is as uncontroversially a source of national pride as jazz.

This is trenchant commentary that might be extended to explain the popularity of, for instance, Haruki Murakami as well.

But despite his studied and enjoyable efforts, not evens Gibbons can entirely riddle out Auster’s fame, and he too collapses upon a familiar formula: “it’s hard to imagine anyone other than die-hard Auster fans warming much to Travels in the Scriptorium.” Now, at least, we have a sense of who these fans are and what attracts them.

Of these many reviews, then, Eric Grunwald’s, appearing in The Boston Globe, is unique for its assertion that, “Although this novel will be understood best by those who have read Auster’s work before… not having done so might actually serve you better.” Being a newcomer to Auster’s books, Grunwald argues, will put you in the same position as the baffled Mr Blank. Grunwald’s strength is that he’s able to examine (and wholeheartedly praise) the prevailing uncertainty in the novel without letting that uncertainty infect his judgment. “It is the power of fiction,” he writes, “to move you even if you don’t fully understand it.”

Notwithstanding Grunwald’s clichés (he writes “Classic Auster” after one quote and “Auster’s fiction…in a nutshell” after another), here at last we have some traction. We may or may not agree that feeling bewildered is the point of reading a novel, but now we know where we stand in relation to the reviewer’s opinion. Grunwald’s review is a heartfelt argument for the virtues of feeling confused and uncomfortable within a narrative, and reading it we come to realize (particularly if we know that Grunwald has also heaped praise on another Auster novel, Oracle Nights) that our reviewer is an Auster-wonk. We’ve heard so much about the chimerical fan-club; here, finally, is one of its members, writing a forcible encomium for a writer he calls “a master.” The heady claim has been altogether validated: Auster’s fans like Auster’s books.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, The Columbia Journal of American
, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.