It’s been a prolific decade for my favourite author, Paul Auster –he has just published his sixth novel of the noughties. As prolific as he’s been, he’s also published some of his weakest works –I don’t care for the crowd-pleasing Brooklyn Follies nor Travels in the Scriptorium, although at least they’re better than Timbuktu, his late nineties novel told through the eyes of a dog. I rate his new novel, Invisible, the second best of the six of the decade, after The Book of Illusions. It is the most typical of his whole career, with many of his recurring elements appearing – a mysterious stranger, a change of fortune, a struggling poet translating French texts, a random act of violence, and a framed narrative.
As almost always happens in Auster’s novels, the protagonist is a male New Yorker born in 1947 and a student at Columbia. Adam Walker is a college student and aspiring poet and the novel is about the defining year of his life, 1967.
Adam meets a mysterious stranger at a party – Rudolf Born – who makes him an offer that will change his life; Born will pay Adam to edit a literary magazine. Born is called away on business, and Adam is seduced by Born’s girlfriend, Margot. Yet it isn’t this that causes a rift between them, but Born’s violent stabbing of a mugger. Adam spends much of the rest of the novel hoping to see justice served on Born for the murder.
In between, he has lots of sex with his sister, and even though there’s been hints of incest in Auster’s work before (In The Country of Last Things, The Red Notebook, from memory) it is the sexual explicitness of this novel that is its most atypical feature. Usually Auster summarizes sex without going into much detail at all, but this time he is more anatomical.
Complicating the story is a complicated framing device. The first part about Walker meeting Born and things going wrong, is revealed to be the first chapter of a manuscript Walker has written in the present day and sent to his friend Jim, a famous writer. Walker is terminally ill and is trying to finish the memoir before he dies. (A situation which recalls Thomas Effing telling Fogg his life story in Moon Palace for his obituary, and Hector Mann bringing Zimmer to his ranch to see his secret films before he dies in The Book of Illusions.) After Jim’s framing, the second part of the novel is told in second person to overcome Walker’s writer’s block. The third part of the novel is filled out by Jim from Walker’s rough notes. As Walker’s narrative ends, Jim does some detective work, tracking down the people involved and trying to solve some of the mysteries.
It is a compulsively readable story, fascinating and littered with insights into the way we make meaning of life and how we decide what to do with ourselves. In her review, Lionel Shriver contended that there is nothing to take away from the book, that it’s like a glass of lemonade. I think part of what she is noticing and what disappoints her is an insistence by Auster that his narratives attempt to mimic some of the randomness of life, with both its coincidence and its failure to resolve. I read a reviewer once describe Auster’s work as a handful of smooth stones rubbing against each other, but not yielding anything as simple as meaning.
Perhaps Auster has had a bad influence on me over the last nine years that I’ve been reading him. Particularly in my first two novels and in an abandoned novel or two, I attempted to emulate his randomness, thinking I could just add it as one more element in a palimpsest of all my favourite writers – a bit of Auster’s randomness, a bit of Joyce’s stream of consciousness, a bit of Dick’s madness – in the one narrative. Not possible. The whole narrative world has to be driven by randomness, if one wants to write about the music of chance.