A Review of Paul Auster’s “Invisible”
Denis Gaston, NaySayerYaySayer
So it is that men who are destroyed (destroyed without destruction) are as though incapable of appearing, and invisible even when one sees them.
—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
Paul Auster’s fifteenth novel, Invisible, is a story about a man trying to tell a story. We see him as a twenty-year-old, and then as a sixty-year-old, struggling to get the story of his twenty-year-old self out.
But a life cannot be bound to words, and will have to remain an enigma, invisible forever and ever. Auster explores this impossibility, this essential truth about ourselves and story telling, with all of the artistry of his sixty-three years.
Readers of Auster’s novels are used to his first person narratives about men who write for a living. Upon first glance, Invisible appears to be the latest in the series. The novel opens as Adam Walker recounts, in first person, how he first met the eccentric Rudolph Born and his mysterious companion Margo at a party in 1967, when Walker was a sophomore at Columbia with a thirst for poetry. Born quickly makes Walker an offer he can’t refuse: to be editor of a literary magazine. Driven by youthful ambition and an insatiable appetite for poetry but inexperienced in love and life, Walker pursues this incredible opportunity while shoving aside red flags pointing to menacing aspects of Born’s personality. The young man quickly finds himself embroiled in a complex triangle of sex, trust and betrayal. The first part of the novel ends in murder and blackmail.
And so too ends what we have come to expect from an Auster metaphysical thriller. And we have our first answer to the meaning of its title. Invisible is constructed of four parts, and in such a way that it is impossible to describe either its plot or its construction without spoiling the experience for the reader. For the purposes of a review, these details will have to remain invisible.
This is what I can tell you. We learn in part II that part I was Walker’s first attempt, at sixty, to write the story of his life in the year 1967. A writer friend tells Walker that in his own experience of writing a first person narrative that had stalled, he only got going again by switching to the third. The friend explains that, in writing in the first person, “I had smothered myself and made myself invisible.” Throughout the rest of the novel we find second and third person narratives interspersed with first person ones, all working toward the same goal: what happened to Adam Walker in 1967?
I can also tell you this. Walker had abandoned writing while still a young man, opting instead for a life in law, not returning to it again until this attempt in his sixtieth year. In turning to law, he explained that he had decided to “work with the poor, the downtrodden, to involve myself with the spat-upon and the invisible….there is far more poetry in the world than justice.”
Invisible as a metaphor resonates throughout the novel in many different ways. For example, the old writer friend whom the sixty-year-old Walker contacts by mail never got a chance to see Walker in the flesh, having not encountered him at all in the years after those university days in the late 60’s. Why Walker chose to reach out to this man is a reflection of the paradox that sometimes a thing is most visible when detached by distance. The people in Walker’s life were too close to see him. One of those people is Walker’s sister, who denies one of the most shocking events in Walker’s story. Who is telling the truth? Whose memory is faulty? In their youth Walker and his sister shared a bond created by the memory of their brother who had drowned as a boy. Every year on their brother’s birthday they’d commemorate him until the painful day when they had to face the fact that their memories could not hold onto him. Time had erased too much of him, rendering him all but invisible. Another example: the murderer alluded to above escapes detection. For reasons that cannot be revealed here, the murderer remains invisible to everyone but Walker.
Such examples of Auster’s use of invisible as a metaphor fill the novel, in ways large and small. But the most striking example—the one that sets this novel most sharply apart from Auster’s previous novels—is that the final story is not told by Walker. And not only that, but it’s not even about Walker. How Auster pulls off this magic trick you’ll have to see for yourself. Trust me, it’s worth it. The story is told by Cecilia, one of the players of Walker’s 1967 drama. Here is where I think Mr. Auster distinguishes himself most impressively as a novelist who is not content to merely repeat himself. For he seldom speaks as a woman, and however he speaks, through whomever he speaks, the Paul Auster voice is consistent in novel after novel. Here—brief as it is—Cecilia’s voice feels different. She actually comes alive, is present (is visible, if you will) more vividly even than Walker himself. And because of this, perhaps, the person she is writing about, Rudolph Born, becomes clearly visible in the reader’s mind as well. So remarkable are the final pages of Invisible, when compared to most of Auster’s other novels, that I’m inclined to compare them to the great works of J. M. Coetzee.
What we see, finally, in Auster’s fifteenth novel is a departure from the metaphysical thrillers, sometimes described as post-modern, that he is famous for. It is still a story about story telling, but this time the humanity of the characters takes precedence over literary structures.
Auster has done this before, most notably with The Music of Chance, but it’s not his usual fare. A more recent attempt, The Brooklyn Follies, failed to bring characters to life or to engage in literary gamesmanship. With Travels in the Scriptorium Auster reverted back to his old ways, with mixed results. In my opinion that work is too self-absorbed. Then, with his fourteenth novel Man in the Dark, Auster seemed to have found the solution: he found a way to write his kind of novel, the kind upon which his reputation sits, but in a way in which the characters emerge on an equal footing with the work’s structures and the author’s voice. But whereas Man in the Dark had a breezy, almost rushed tone to it, Invisible takes more time to allow its riches to play out. It is highly recommended for hard-core Auster fans and novices alike.
Mark Kerstetter writes poetry, fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.