Auster returns to New York Trilogy terrain. The paranormal Trilogy, published in 1985, paved the way for a slew of idiosyncratic novels swollen with historical disobedience and tromp l’oeil fables. In this novella, an old man known only as Mr. Blank awakes in a cell and wonders where he is and why. He’s cranky, physically diminished, and sexually aroused. Is he an intelligence officer suffering from amnesia? A character in a 19th century political allegory who has lied and murdered? A medical guinea pig? Why can’t he remember the salient details of his life?
This is a Magritte-style musing on the culpability of the writer in “committing” the act of fiction. Mr. Blank is the writer, of course, and his miserable characters have cunningly “captured” him. In his 2004 novel “Oracle Nights,” Auster ingeniously overlapped illness, reminiscence, and ghosts. “Travels” is an Oracle prequel that permits characters to avenge their coming literary imprisonment, challenging to author to suffer their fate. It’s lucidly mischievous stuff.