Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Transforming Through Objects

I'm always interested to find an object as the focus of a written work. Usually, the object is described in detail and is central to the plot. Often, the main character is changed by it. Just as an artist transforms an object, the object transforms a character. The story works well when the object is shown in detail and provides emotional side effects; the reader begins to connect with it.

In Paul Auster's 2006 book Travels in the Scriptorium: A Novel, the object is a typescript. The main character, who remembers nothing, must find out who he is. He is called Mr. Blank. At the beginning of the story he wears blue-and-yellow striped pajamas and is located in a white room with a camera taking pictures of him every second. Anna comes in and dresses him in white. The furnishings are spare and are labeled with white tape: lamp, desk, etc.. He discovers the typescript on a desk and reads about a detailed life and a history; the story in the typescript (story within the story) is more vivid than the story of Blank in the white room. 

The questions begin. Did Blank write the story? Is it true or fiction? But if Blank is fictitious how can the story be true? Why is Blank in this room? Is he a prisoner? What is the connection between the story and Mr. Blank? The walls stay white, like blank pages. The plot is mysterious. The creative writing process unfolds. I started feeling that I, the reader, had to add and create the details. Auster planted a mirror between many of the pages. He had a concept—metafiction—about the writing process. The typescript's story holds most of the action. Blank's story feels removed and sterile. (Someone told me later he thought Auster's work was "bloodless.") Ultimately, the typescript becomes the catalyst that changes the character. But along the way the reader is not invited to feel very much.

I went back to try Auster's first book (1985), City of Glass (New York Trilogy), and realized many of the characters from that novel were referred to in this one. Although it wasn't crucial to know, on reflection it helped me understand the later book. It also showed me that Auster's favorite subject appears to be the process of writing. In City of Glass, Auster introduces the character, Paul Auster, who is also a writer: Auster the writer writing about Auster the writer. Truth stands on its head.

In the 1937 story, "Spring" in the collection Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (published with The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories) by artist/writer Bruno Schulz, Bianca, the girl of the narrator's affection, wears a white dress. Another blank slate, perhaps? The girl is one object of focus. This story is drenched in details and colorful imagery all centering around a pocket-sized stamp collection. The stamps become tiny portals to larger worlds that take the delusional narrator into a story of his own creation, (another story within a story) perhaps so he will have confidence  to try to win Bianca's heart. This narrator/character is quite a startling contrast to the white Blank of Auster's making. Schulz creates a world, both inside and outside the stamp collection, that is visceral, specific, and rich. The stamp album feels tangible.

Both writers worked with the idea of myth and reality. What is real? What is fiction? Who is writing? Is the author in control of the narrative or does it seem that the character is creating the story? Auster's book demonstrates how writing works from the inside out, layer by layer: with lists, and memories, and rewrites; Schulz's story shows a character making up a detailed fantasy. By his vivid metaphors, juxtapositions, and word choices Schulz welcomes us into a far more interesting and imaginative world. Although he presents his concept well, Auster just doesn't give us enough details to care for long.

The stories each use a book to propel the plot, and each book transforms a character and the reader. Auster is clever. He changes our view of writing by twisting the story into a mobius strip. Schulz is imaginative; we join the character's fantasy and take on his desires. Auster plays with the intellect. Schulz works with the heart. Intellect vs. heart. When is it fair to compare?


ronnie said...

I think the very best art (poetry, novels, visual arts, music...) does something to and with both the heart and the mind....

Lizzie said...

I think, for me, that the key to answering that question is at the end of your post - you say that Auster ..."doesn't give us enough details to care for long".
Heart is the reason I generally read a novel, not intellect (though I can't bear ill-written drivel with no real plot or intellectual content!).
Intellect is good. But Heart is so much more satisfying!