Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster

Like most readers, I'm attracted to a book by its cover. I've been meaning to read some of Auster's books, and fell in love with the cover to this one. It's a photograph of a completely white room, vaguely industrial, with exposed pipes and heating ducts, furnished only with a cot placed under the single window and a desk and chair. So far, we're talking about my fantasy through all the years of being a single mom working multiple jobs—perhaps every writer's dream—of a place where no one would bother me and I could just write.

However, smack dab in front of the bed, there's a white horse, standing there staring out at the reader. So even before starting to read, I know we've entered the realm of the surreal. The story starts with a man sitting on the bed in that room (minus the horse). Everything in the room is labeled: wall, desk, etc. He can't remember his name or why he is there. He's not sure if he's been locked in or is free to go. I thought at first it was a prison cell; then perhaps a hospital room, but we are not told.

Of course, by this time I'm thinking of Kafka, but I'm also thinking about my recurrent struggles to pull up the word or name that has just slipped my mind. We decide to call the man Mr. Blank. Throughout the day, Mr. Blank is visiting by a number of people who bring meals or harangue him. All the while he is struggling to remember who these people are, why he feels guilty when he looks at the photographs on the desk. Also on the desk are two manuscripts which he starts reading.

If I'd read other Auster books, I'd have twigged to what was going on sooner, but it still didn't take me long. Scary, amusing, self-referential, the story unfolds quickly. Auster is known for postmodernist games, but this brief book reads more like a fable or a cautionary tale. By coming at his subject sideways, Auster manages to surprise and intrigue a (on some topics, at least) jaded reader like me.

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