Travels In The Scriptorium by Paul Auster

Being Paul Auster - a trip through the teeming brain of the author

Look up "scriptorium" in an illustrated dictionary and, underneath its primary meaning of a room set aside in a monastery for the writing or copying of manuscripts, chances are you would find a head shot of Paul Auster.

If it is possible for this slender novel to be self-regarding almost to the point of narcissism, and yet still have worthwhile intellectual aims and excel as a compelling narrative, then let us work out how Auster manages to get away with it.

The starting point is the key: a man in a room on his own with a desk and a manuscript. The man is Mr Blank, so presumably he can be whoever we want him to be, especially as he doesn't seem to know who he is himself. Is he Fanshawe, the supposed author of the document on the desk, and if so is he really Auster, the author of the current work? Fanshawe is a name that Auster fans will remember from The New York Trilogy, in which he appeared as the author pursued by Quinn, who turns up here as Mr Blank's lawyer. Whoever Mr Blank really is, his every movement is scrutinised by surveillance cameras, each utterance recorded on tape.

The features of the room are revealed only as they become implicated in the narrative. The door, the bathroom, the change of clothes - nothing exists until it is described, like a picture sketched before our eyes, and before the eyes of Mr Blank. The step-by-step set-up is an analogy for writing itself, fiction pared down to its essentials.

A series of characters troops on stage, each familiar from his or her appearance in an earlier Auster novel: Anna Blume, from In the Country of Last Things, James P Flood and Sophie, both from The New York Trilogy. They are described as former "operatives" controlled by Mr Blank. Whether this should be regarded as overly self-referential or as legitimate recycling of Auster's own material has to be a matter of personal judgment.

In a meeting with Flood, the "former inspector from Scotland Yard", Mr Blank exclaims, "You take yourself so damned seriously, Flood. It makes you look ridiculous."

It's a risky line, if one imagines substituting Auster for Flood, but there's no denying the spell the novel casts over the reader. Nor is Auster merely playing head games; appeals are made to organs other than the brain.

Nicholas Royle's short-story collection, 'Mortality', is published by Serpent's Tail