Rarely has a novelist pulled the strings of his puppetry more transparently, as ardent fans may find this meta-fictional fable profound, while others may dismiss it as a literary parlor trick.
With a Kafkaesque protagonist in an M.C. Escher plot, Auster (The Brooklyn Follies, 2005, etc.) returns to the themes of identity, memory, illusion and creativity that have marked his work since his breakthrough New York Trilogy (The Locked Room, 1986, etc.). During that period, he was regarded as a sort of metaphysical mystery writer, a reputation he lives up to here. The protagonist is nameless except as “the old man,” until author and reader make a compact to refer to him as “Mr. Blank,” which immediately becomes the name by which other characters know him. Those characters then invoke the names of others recycled from Auster’s fiction (Benjamin Sachs, David Zimmer, Fanshawe, Quinn), whom Mr. Blank is supposed to know but doesn’t. Except for vague memories and dreams, he knows nothing. He has been committed to or incarcerated within a room that is the totality of his environment, or perhaps he is there by choice. Everything in the room carries a label (“lamp,” “desk,” etc.), for his command of the connection between language and reality (whatever that is) is tenuous. There are photographs on the desk that might well spark clues to his identity, and a manuscript that purports to be the memoir of a previous occupant of this very room. Visitors come and go: a doctor, a former inspector, a lawyer and others, some of whom may have had some connection with Mr. Blank, none of whom he remembers and most of whom he will forget as soon as they leave. Otherwise, nothing much happens, until the novel culminates in Mr. Blank’s discovery of another manuscript with which the reader will be quite familiar.
Though some will find that the illumination within the final three pages justifies the existential tedium preceding it, others will agree with Mr. Blank, who is “not the least bit amused” and wonders, “When is this nonsense going to end?”