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February 23, 2008

Little ado about everything

3 out of 5 stars

At the opening of this novella, it is made clear that "we", the readers and observers, are not only following the protagonist 's travels; we are studying him. Struggling to remember who he is and what he has done, Mr. Blank has to reconstruct his identity from the enigmatic characters (all emerging from Auster's previous novels) that visit him in the room he is trapped in. It soon, however, amounts to a simple idea: he is the figure of the author, trapped inside his work, and I, as a reviewer, am examining him as we follow his actions through cameras in planted in his cell. 

It is a haunting, simple conceit, and the opening is nothing less than extraordinary, playing out our fears of surveillance and identity in a fable-like manner. I would be lying if I did not also say that the book becomes a study of creativity, a political parable and a meditation on epistomology. What may come as a surprise is that I do not consider this, ultimately, to be a winning prospect. This tale takes up a meagre 118 pages and, quite frankly, the illusiveness of the tale means that it is about too much: the story is so stripped down,and the premise such a Sartres-like excuse to meditate on anything that comes to the author's mind, that ultimately the work has no focus.

I wonder if I am the only one to despair at this kind of work, about everything and nothing, leaving the critics to explain all that the text is evoking while the plot iself evokes very little. A text does not become interesting by being peppered by meaningful- sounding sentances simply to hint at the under-developed complexities it thinks it is tackling. The blasphemous person that I am, I also felt this while reading Middlemarch: characters are looking for meaning and truth, but I never felt that the story ever properly engaged with the idea of doing the same. I enjoy dark fables, but Auster has tried to create one and given us a failure, albeit a fascinating one. Next time he should try and see what a fable actually is: a short story which tries to teach us something concrete.

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