The perplexing tale of Mr. Blank
A man wakes up in an unfamiliar room, with no memory of who he is or how he came to be there. Stop me if you've heard this one. No, really. Please? Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster's 14th novel, is intended as a sort of literary birthday present to one of his heroes, Samuel Beckett. Whether readers will regard it as a gift largely depends on whether they prefer Auster's earlier metaphysical puzzles, such as the New York Trilogy, or his later, less coldly constructed works, such as "The Book of Illusions" or last year's "The Brooklyn Follies."
"Travels" marks a return of meta-tricks in the same vein as the earlier novels, which featured a writer with the word-scramble handle of Trause, to say nothing of a character christened "Paul Auster." Given that one of his novels was titled "The Locked Room" and that questions of identity are usually front and center, he certainly comes by his preoccupations here honestly.
"Scriptorium" features one day in the life of Mr. Blank, who may or may not be a prisoner. (He's afraid to see if the door is locked, but the window is nailed shut.) Or perhaps he's a patient – he's been dressed all in white and people keep insisting that he take a series of brightly colored pills.
His room's sole decorations are labels naming the desk "desk," the wall "wall," etc. During the course of the day, he's visited by a policeman, his lawyer, and two nurses, all of whom offer vague intimations of retribution at the hands of those Mr. Blank has wronged (although the nature of his crimes are not clear).
"Let's just say there's a lot of resentment and leave it at that," a visitor advises.
I enjoy a good Charlie Kaufman screenplay as much as the next person, but one of the demands of a pretzel plot is that a reader must race to keep up, gripped by every demented hairpin turn. Here, a nagging suspicion starts on Page 8, only to be confirmed by Page 27. That leaves a reader without a whole lot to do for the next 133 pages.
Oh, and if you're going to name a character Blank, he'd better be played by John Cusack and be accompanied by a hip-yet-nostalgic soundtrack.
When left to his own devices, Blank reads a book fragment left on his desk. The novel, or report (he's not sure), is about a man who is most definitely a prisoner, who's writing from his cell to report a massacre that occurred in an alternate America ruled by the Confederacy.
His lawyer does nothing to allay his concerns. Charges against him run "the whole gamut I'm afraid. From criminal indifference to sexual molestation. From conspiracy to commit fraud to negligent homicide. From defamation of character to first-degree murder." When Mr. Blank protests that he hasn't committed any of these crimes, his lawyer remarks, "It depends on how you look at it."
While that's no doubt true of the novel as well, I think that perhaps Mr. Blank sums it up best: "By now, Mr. Blank has read all that he can stomach, and he is not the least bit amused.... When is this nonsense going to end?"
The book's ending is a reveal that will strike readers as either highly meta or highly aggravating, depending on whether a fellow student pulled a similar trick in a college writing class. For me, it most closely resembled Eric Carle's Greedy Python, swallowing its own tail until there is nothing left.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.