Saturday, April 5, 2014

Epistemological Minimalism

The Crusoe myth enters philosophy mainly in the form of an epistemological orientation, as opposed to ontology or metaphysics.  … Crusoe enters, not as a deus, but as a homo ex machina.  He has passed through the fire of total doubt, and has come through.
-- Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change (1964), p. 105

We earlier, in extenso (here and here and here) examined the ins & outs, and roundabouts, of the mystery-movie “Memento”.  The film is a puzzle-box, challenging and entertaining;  though we ultimately had to conclude that the pieces don’t really all fit together.    Its essential pleasure lies in its premise:   a man finds himself alone in a room, with no memory of his past, but an intense drive to piece it all together, starting from the most minimal of information, and eagerly hoarding each new scrap.   
Epistemologically, it is a modernist development (I almost wrote, ‘extension’, but it is more like a contraction) of the theme of Robinson Crusoe.  (This we observed earlier, here;  the comparison occurs explicitly in Auster’s The Locked Room.)

The other day, browsing the remainder tables, I happened upon Paul Auster’s 2006 entertainment, Travels in the Scriptorium, which managed to pull me in from the very first paragraph.   I purchased it  knowing that, like the other enjoyable stories of his I have read, it would ultimately prove an empty drawer.   But -- as with “Memento” -- the fellow is pushing my buttons, whether I like it or not.  I can’t help responding, much like those otherwise-sensible women whose buttons (one in particular) are pushed by bodice-rippers.

The dust-jacket calls it “A Novel”, a thing which it is not.  It is a conte, a sotie, a long-shortstory, a mini-novelette, and none the worse for that, except commercially.  Indeed, as a short-story, of that by now familiar kind which begins in medias res, and ends there as well, it’s not a bad read, while you’re waiting for the light to change.  But if you seriously expected the depth and development, the hard-won insights of a real novel, you would be disappointed, and likely storm right back to the overstock store, blustering, “I don’t care if it did cost me only two dollars -- I want them both back!”

Fact is, it is extremely easy to set up an atmosphere of dread, anomie, mystery, conspiracy, or anything you like;  the hard part is the follow-through:  actually delivering on any of the promising plot-points.

The book(let) is decidedly ‘intertextual’ -- narcissistically self-referential.  It trots out the names of characters from earlier efforts (Fanshawe, Quinn), but as those characters were spectral to begin with, and as they  in this later work  are little more than a name, there is no layering or synergy at work:  the instructed reader simply nods in recognition, and awards himself a sugar-plum.   The business about switching labels for things (bed/lamp; lamp/bed) is foreshadowed in Ghosts, but in this later work turns out to be an annoying red-herring, since the explanation of the ‘conundrum’ there thrown up (how did the labels get so quickly switched, given that they are stubbornly adhesive) is never answered.  It's like "Lost":  flourish a bunch of tantalizing mysteries, and then forget about them.

I had rather hoped nonetheless,  that some of the tantalizing puzzles the author trots out, might find elucidation, but it was not to be.   At some point, the story simply bites its own tail, and stops.   (At least it was decently briefer about coming to this non-conclusion than was Finnegan’s Wake.)  And so we rest, le miel sur le lèvres, in an eternal posture of disappointment, as the story freezes to a close.   It is, at the end, a chat, an elegant but empty exercise;  a jack-in-the-box with no jack in it.
(There!  Now that’s lapidary.  Let them put that on a dust-jacket!)


I looked the thing up on Wiki (yes, it rates its own page), to see what the critical reaction had been;  the English article, very sketchy, gives none.   The German entry ( shows more Gründlichkeit, and quotes this review, whose sentiment we second:

 „Hier wird keine richtige Geschichte erzählt, die mit Stoff gefüttert wurde, einen Anfang, eine Mitte, ein Ende und eine Bedeutung hat. Wieder einmal hat Auster eine literarische Fingerübung aus dem Ärmel gezaubert […].“

– die tageszeitung, 28. Juli 2007[2]

For a real novel, that actually goes somewhere --
beginning with guns, and ending in Grace --
Try this instead:

For our own experiment in locked-room mysterious minimalism,  try this:

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