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An old man, Mr. Blank, wakes up in a small room. He is disoriented and remembers almost nothing about himself and his life. “What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt,” we learn early on. “At the same time, he can’t escape the feeling that he is the victim of a terrible injustice.” A cavalcade of strange characters—a few of whom he vaguely recalls—will enter Mr. Blank’s room before the day is done and variously bathe, feed, and medicate him. Also, an unfinished manuscript has been left for him to read. Travels in the Scriptorium qualifies as one of those curious instances in which exegesis proves more engaging than the novel itself, a sad commentary on its lack of straightforward storytelling. The characters, some of whom resent Mr. Blank for having sent them on dangerous “missions,” are all drawn from Auster’s previous novels. Absent knowledge of this feeble inside joke, you’ll be hard-pressed to understand what the fuss is about. Even then, this book is like an anemic episode of a daytime soap opera, bloated with famous guest stars in the vain hope of enlivening the proceedings. The story’s import concerns the moral responsibility of the writer. Mr. Blank believes that “if you want to tell a good story, you can’t show any pity.” Yet if this is true, can a writer be a moral person? Does Mr. Blank (read: Auster) owe anything to the people he has created and so often imperiled or even killed off? His lawyer Daniel Quinn (from City of Glass), ominously informs him that “many charges have been filed against you.” It may be why he is asked to complete an unfinished manuscript. The fictional story, by John Trause (the novelist in Auster’s Oracle Night whose last name is an anagram of “Auster”), depicts a country resembling 19th-century America that’s plotting the destruction of its indigenous population. Will Mr. Blank again recklessly endanger characters he helps bring to life? This may sound like a provocative premise, but you’ve seen it all before. Instead of the inmates taking over the asylum, the characters give their capricious author a taste of his own medicine. Now he must think of how to escape and whether such a thing is possible given that he is but a pawn in the hands of a higher power. Throughout the slim book, Mr. Blank worries that the door to his room is locked but dares not investigate for fear of confirming his suspicion. The locked room is one of Auster’s favorite tropes; in his eyes, it represents the metaphysical nexus between a writer and his fiction. An anguished Blue in Auster’s Ghosts is assailed by the question, “How to get out of the room that is the book that will go on being written for as long as he stays in the room?” A fitting rejoinder to Auster’s claustrophobic obsession: How to go on reading the book that will continue to be about a room as long as I keep reading? Indeed, it’s high time Paul Auster plucked up his courage, knocked down that locked door, and strode into a world that is itself fraught with crises of individual morality and authorial responsibility.
By Britt Peterson
The Welsh are the Poles of the United Kingdom. Annexed by the English in 1284 after the death of the aptly named Llywelyn the Last, the Welsh have since endured centuries of imperialism and jokes about manly men, nervous sheep, and sheep-faced women. A Welsh nationalist movement took root during the 20th century, leading to the formation of an independent Welsh government in 1999, but the Welsh–English relationship remains fraught with mutual disdain: The two lands are like an estranged couple living in the same house, year after miserable year. Peter Ho Davies may be the ideal chronicler of the collective, large-scale antipathies that simulate the antipathies within a family; his new novel, The Welsh Girl, skillfully jousts with the competing, mirroring tensions of nationalism and familial loyalty in a World War II–era Welsh village. Davies is half-Welsh, half-Chinese; in his two previously published story collections, he seemed as much of an insider in mid-century north Wales as he did in modern-day Arizona, colonial Malaya, lower-middle-class England, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Patagonia. For Davies, we are all one family, and the world is our kitchen table—and all of Davies’ family stories end happily, if with enough underlying bitterness and regret to keep things interesting. The enemy is never the “other” but our own hesitancy in embracing the other. Davies’ one-world sensibility is both a strength and a liability in The Welsh Girl. The perspective of the novel’s central narrative is split between Esther (the Welsh girl of the title), a barmaid who is raped by an English soldier and must decide what to do with the baby, and Karsten, a German POW who is detained for a while in her sheep-herding village. The romantic story of their transcultural encounter is framed and paralleled by a plotline featuring Rotheram, a German Jew assigned to interrogate Rudolf Hess, who’s languishing in a Welsh farmhouse before his trial at Nuremberg. The best sections of the novel, which brim with evidence that Davies is an accomplished scholar of the human family unit, are those between actual relatives or people molded into close relations by the war: Esther and the evacuated English boy who moves in with her and her father; Karsten and his fellow prisoner; and Esther’s two mother figures—a jaded BBC actress and a local schoolteacher. The evolution of Esther’s relationship with her father, as she comes to discard his misogynistic form of Welsh nationalism and develop her own, anchors the narrative, and Karsten’s letters from and to his mother in Germany perfectly handle tones of guilt, shame, and affection. But The Welsh Girl pales when these family ties are background to the war scenes, which are insufficiently vivid. Davies doesn’t manage to make us feel like we’ve been shelled by faceless enemies, rounded up into cages, or beaten until our bones snap—his writing is too delicate, perhaps too kind, to deliver these harsh acts convincingly. He never dumps us as deep into the grime as the subject matter requires. Davies’ craftsmanship never abates; he simply seems more at ease with close-knit, actual families than with the divided family, writ large, that was Wales, England, and Europe after World War II.