Paul Auster, Invisible, Henry Holt and Co., 308 pp., $25.00 It seems like someone writes in every Paul Auster novel I’ve read. Writing is often as much a part of the story as the story itself. And there’s often a doubling of situations: characters recreate each other in some fashion, sometimes finding themselves to be fulfillments of each other’s imagination or even the authors of each other’s existence.
Then there’s the prose itself: Auster writes a prose that is rather austere; he doesn’t fill his novels with the particulars of general experience, nor does he spend much effort on description; he lets brief references to the larger world serve the purpose of instant recognition that other novelists take to great lengths. Even though his books are set in specific places and times, there’s often a streamlined approach to setting that makes his work seem minimalist. And there’s almost no one in his novels other than his main characters -- few extras, no crowd scenes.
With this, his fifteenth novel, Auster works his limited palette to great effect: the ‘instability of the narrative’ -- often a much-touted feature of postmodern fiction -- is blended easily with steady evocation of dramatic situations: a triangular relationship between a young poet and an older couple; a self-defence killing or murder; the death of a brother as a child; an incestuous sexual relationship; an elaborate effort at vengeance; a sinister meeting in a remote locale after many years; a writer who is constructing a memoir that might also be fiction and who is dying while writing it.
Part One is a swiftly-moving narrative in which Adam Walker, a student at Columbia in 1967, recounts his encounter with the somewhat unsettling but generous Rudolph Born and enters into an affair with Born’s companion, a Frenchwoman called Margot. The story ends with an act of violence and a gripping self-examination on Walker’s part. In Part Two we find that the story was a manuscript sent to a writer named Jim (the “Auster character” -- there is often in Auster’s fiction an authorial presence in the story, who in some ways is “like” Auster himself). Jim tells us quickly of his friendship with Walker back in their Columbia days. We learn that Walker, in the present, has leukemia, is dying, and is trying to write a three-part memoir based on his life in 1967. Part One of Invisible is, in Walker’s ms., called “Spring.”
Soon Jim is reading “Summer,” in which Walker and his slightly older sister Gwyn become lovers. But Walker, stymied by the rigors of writing, had asked Jim for advice before writing this segment; Jim’s advice was to move from first person to third. Instead, Walker settles for an in-between: he uses second person for the story of Adam and Gwyn.
What’s in a pronoun? Does the shift in pronoun make the story more believable or less? And what about later, when Walker’s illness gets the best of him, so that the final portion of Walker’s narrative, chronicling “Fall,” his time in Paris reconnecting with Born and Margot, is told in the third person because Jim creates the narrative from Walker’s notes and drafts? This kind of distancing from the narrative through different acts of narration seems almost automatic on Auster’s part, as if simply telling the story would be to fall into the trap of authority, rather than Austerity, of presenting events as simply occurring rather than necessarily narrated.
Finally, we return to the first person for the novel’s dénouement, a diary written by Cécile Juin and given to Jim. Cécile, in 1967, nearly became Born’s stepdaughter; she was a young student, a would-be translator, and developed a crush on Walker. Her diary recounts her final meeting with Born, on an island in the Caribbean in 2002.
The novel, like most Auster, is deftly imagined, and told with no wasted motion. There’s sex, food, interesting conversation, talk about books and writing, and through it all the figure of Born, a mercurial, malevolent character whose actual intentions, occupation, and thoughts are never quite certain. A provocation to Walker, but also a sort of idée fixe that gets passed on to Jim and to Cécile and to the reader as well.
An extremely subtle novelist, Auster's true intentions often arrive almost indirectly. Because he’s able to interest us in almost anything he chooses to write about, one reads his novels sometimes a bit frustrated that he doesn’t devote more attention to some of the very interesting situations and ideas that surface. His novels, at their best, follow an inexorable logic or narrative necessity, but at other times it’s rather like being shown a series of sketches which the reader’s own imagination must flesh out and inhabit, much as Gwyn and Adam do for their dead brother Andy, holding a birthday party for him every year at which they discuss him in the past, present, and future:
For ten years now, he has been living this shadow existence inside you, a phantom being who has grown up in another dimension, invisible yet breathing, breathing and thinking, thinking and feeling, and you have followed him since the age of eight, for more years after death than he ever managed to live . . .
Auster’s characters are like this dead boy: shadow existences that inhabit each other’s minds, often via writing, and who inhabit the reader’s mind, “invisible yet breathing,” haunting and quizzical, never quite exhausted by the stories their author tells of them, a part of Auster’s ongoing shadow existence and ours.