Back in the days when I was a working freelance journalist between 1998 and 2004, I did a couple of stories on the ongoing popularity of interactive fiction. You know, Zork. Even though interactive fiction, or IF, had its heyday back in the early to mid-‘80s, it was still sufficiently popular as a niche part of the Internet market in the early 2000s. So I got to do a story on latter-day IF and I got to do it twice, for two different publications.
However, of all of the pieces that I did, this is one of those stories that wound up outlasting its original publication date, because, I had found, in my research, that a great deal of IF stories/games were variations of “a man/woman with memory loss awakens in a locked room and must find out their true identity”. I got taken to task in the IF community for suggesting that this was the raison d’être for a lot of IF, although, in the detritus of the Interwebs, one person would afterwards comment that I might have been right all along, as more and more games started to flood the market (well, the free Internet market) with that basic premise.
So why bother bringing this up here? Well, Paul Auster has two short novels in his recent late-period oeuvre that are basically amnesiac, “man locked in a room” stories, or are roughly considered to be such – one of the novels takes this approach literally, the other figuratively. Both books have now been repackaged into a single volume in paperback called Day / Night, because they are the flip sides of each other and invite the reader to make comparisons or even contrasts between them.
Those novels, of course, are 2007’s Travels in the Scriptorium and 2008’s Man in the Dark. Both are entries in the Auster canon that contain stories within a story, and are somewhat unique for Auster as (some of) these embedded narratives tip-toe gently into science fiction territory.
Auster, of course, is no stranger to skewering genre fiction, but has generally done it with the detective story (see The New York Trilogy). So both Travels in the Scriptorium and Man in the Dark are thrilling and compelling and downright intriguing novels. Having had read most of his work, I missed these two the first time around, so it’s good to have them both in one place at one reasonably low price for the first time ever for those like me who were, well, in the dark.
Travels in the Scriptorium is the story of an old man named (cheekily enough) Mr. Blank who is confined to a room for reasons unknown. He cannot remember what has transpired in the past, and then only in bits and pieces, and he has only a notepad of paper to jot down names as they come to him, which he hopes will help him unravel the mystery of his incarceration. And the way out of his predicament, it would seem, has something to do with a fragmented narrative left on the desk in his room about a prisoner in a situation that’s rather otherworldly and set in a sort of fantasy land that Mr. Blank must complete as part of his “treatment”.
As usual for an Auster work, there’s a lot to chew on in Travels in the Scriptorium, especially when it comes to the nuts and bolts of storytelling. As well, Auster keeps the audience on an uneven keel – you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next – which gives a fair amount of thrill to a story that is largely set in confined spaces. That said, there’s only so much you can do with the locked room conceit, so there are some dry stretches. In the end, the novel is a little like a Möbius strip that wraps itself around itself. Some may be put off by the lack of a satisfying conclusion, but, overall, Travels in the Scriptorium is an interesting experiment, and fans of Auster will notice something a little familiar: elements from previous Auster novels converge in the narrative, with characters from past books getting referenced here. It’s a delightful little trick, and makes the real world author implicit in the work.
Man in the Dark, on the other hand, is a little bit longer at nearly 200 pages, it’s arguably the more successful of the two works as the narrative plays larger tricks with one’s mind and has a much bigger payoff. This novel concerns another elderly man, this time who is crippled, named August Brill, who, while in the midst of a late night bout of insomnia, starts making up a story about a man named Owen Brick who, here’s the shades of the science-fiction, wakes up in a deep hole in the ground (a possible nod to Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?) only to later discover that America is in the grip of a civil war, not a war being fought in a far flung region of the world, despite the year being 2007.
It turns out that if Brick kills the man who is inventing the story – Brill – the war will be over. But does Brick want to kill a man he has never met, let alone one who doesn’t exist in his own reality? Needless to say, there’s a surprise ending at work here that deals with the nature of what kinds of narratives, terrible or otherwise, we tell ourselves. Man in the Dark is, in a word, gripping and it pulls you into the sucking vortex of its plot of the fantastic other America as well as the fantastic of the ordinary world.
Both novels are about a lot of things, and there are plenty of big ideas to think about. However, collecting them together brings a recurring theme into larger focus: that of the author who is grappling with the blank page, and creating characters that do believable things. What’s more, Auster ponders the power of the act of creation: how much is an author implied in the crimes of its main characters’ actions? Where does reality and fantasy meet? Can a character one creates in their head come back to harm the creator in some psychological way? Where does the political and personal intersect?
These are just some of the metaphysical and ponderous questions that these short novels raise, and one can quite easily get lost down the preverbal rabbit hole thinking about them. These short novels, particularly Man in the Dark, make for a fascinating read after thumbing through Auster’s recent and latest autobiography Report from the Interior as elements of Auster’s personal life – such as the Newark Race Riots, dealt with in the latter work – crop up as a plot element in the fiction. As a whole, reading these novels is a little like filling in gaps in Auster’s personal narrative, and a great deal of himself is reflected in the work.
I don’t know if Auster ever read/played any interactive fiction in his day, but with the novels contained within Day/Night, he offers up two examples of the genre’s tropes without realizing it. That all said, Day/Night is still best read as a book without the interactive lull: what works on the printed page wouldn’t exactly transpire well to the computer screen, naturally.
Taken together, Travels in the Scriptorium and Man in the Dark offer two of the more potent and recent examples of the creative process and how an author struggles with the blank page. These books can be taken as metaphor, then, but they may be just as enjoyable and thrilling just going along for the ride of their basic plots.