Ghost in the machine

<strong>Travels in the Scriptorium</strong>

Paul Auster <em>Faber & Faber, 130pp, £12.99</em>

IS

Locked rooms are tantalising, from without (Bluebeard's castle) or within (Edgar Allan Poe's seminal detective story). A locked room can be a spur to invention, a microcosmic challenge: to make, as Donne wrote that love made, "one little room, an everywhere". Donne's "little room" was also his stanza of verse: enlarge the room and it might become a slim prose fiction, a chamber novel. Not coincidentally, The Locked Room is the title of the third book in Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, to which, along with most of his other novels, this new story adverts.

The locked room contains a man, an old man with no name. The humourless and pedantic narrator invites us to think of the man as "Mr Blank". He explains that the room is under surveillance, with a ceiling camera and wall microphone. It is on the basis of this electronic data that the narrator claims he is able to write his "report" of Mr Blank's activities, but this explanation will come to seem insufficient.

Mr Blank is forgetful, or senile, or the subject of psychological torture. There is reference to his "treatment". There are visitors, some female. (In the room, the women come and go.) Some perform kindnesses - he is washed and spoonfed - but the pills they give him make his hands shake. Mr Blank half-remembers these people. There are photographs of them on the desk in his room. He wonders if they are all people he sent out on "missions", if they are among the "shadow beings" that give him waking nightmares. Is Mr Blank a spymaster?

On the desk, too, is the typescript of an unfinished novel for which Blank will improvise the finale. The novel purports to be the writing of another man in a locked room, beaten and awaiting execution. It recounts the story of an incipient war between the Confederacy and the Primitives. Mr Blank's completion of the story is cynical. He justifies one of his plot adjustments so: "What better way to unite the people than to invent a common enemy and start a war?" The novel is in one way a taut fable of a "ghost detainee" in the "war on terror".

Auster's recent novels have melted some of the ice. The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night were masterpieces; then came The Brooklyn Follies, overly thawed, a fey comedy. Travels in the Scriptorium returns to an earlier arctic mood, the nihilistic gaiety of Beckett (in particular Krapp) or the subdermal violence of Pinter. One of Blank's visitors, an ex-policeman named Flood, exudes an economical malevolence: instead of "two shakes of a cat's tail", he speaks of "two shakes of a cat". When challenged, he responds, with imperturbably menacing politeness: "Just an expression, Mr Blank. No harm intended." But harm intended, this novel wants to say, is not the only kind of harm.

Mr Blank is able at least to take refuge in small things: in the moment, for instance, when he discovers that his movement around the room, his travels in the scriptorium, can be taken in the desk chair, which has wheels: "A new form of pleasure has become available to him." Auster sets this lyricism of the mundane against an increasingly oppressive atmosphere in which ghosts might come alive from books.

For the scriptorium is also Auster's own room. Each of Blank's visitors is a character from a previous Auster novel, the last from his first: Quinn, the metaphysical detective from City of Glass. The uninitiated will still, no doubt, notice the anagrammatic nature of "John Trause", who reappears from Oracle Night. So the novel walks a fine line between ludic intertextuality and smug in-joke.

There is one brilliantly eerie image of Auster's obsession. Each object in the room has a label that tells Blank what it is: "LAMP" on the lamp, and so on. But at one moment, Blank notices that all the labels have been switched. "The lamp now reads BATHROOM." Language is broken. Panicked, Blank tears his fingernails attempting to restore the nightmarishly sticky labels to their proper places. At last he succeeds: it has been "nothing short of a symbolic undertaking to restore harmony to a broken universe". Not, we notice, actually to mend the brokenness; merely to restore "harmony" to it. It is a sort of manifesto, as is the whole novel; fulfilment must await the next.

Steven Poole's "Unspeak" is published by Little, Brown