You don’t read a novel by Paul Auster so much as you give in to one. There’s the smooth and polished prose to tempt you. There are mysteries and misdeeds to ensnare you. There’s autobiography, course. And there’s the sheer, mad pace of the thing, rip-snorting right out of the gate, all of it conjured to life in an atmosphere of pervasive unease.
You read on to make sense of it. You read on to be free of it. You read on because you must. And so it is with Invisible, Auster’s unsettling 13th novel.
It’s 1967 and Adam Walker, a 20-year-old literature student at Columbia University, is unhappily hanging around the edges of a party, feeling sorry for himself. He’s a loner and a poet and well read enough that when he first meets Rudolph Born, Adam’s first thought is of an obscure figure with the same name in Dante’s Inferno. Born, a visiting professor in his mid-30s, tells Adam that he and his strangely silent girlfriend, Margot, noticed the young man’s distress and felt compelled to make sure he wasn’t suicidal.
As the trio talk, of Born’s boredom with Columbia, of Adam’s concerns about the Vietnam draft, of Cuba and Kennedy and other touchstones of the era, Adam’s disquiet grows. Born is so opinionated and unorthodox that Adam can’t get a read on him. Margot, meanwhile, thin and dark and maybe even beautiful — again, Adam can’t quite tell — won’t stop staring. The pair, with European accents Adam can’t place and an agenda he can’t fathom, send him reeling.
“The truth was that I had never run across people like this before, and because the two of them were so alien to me, so unfamiliar in their affect, the longer I talked to them, the more unreal they seemed to become — as if they were imaginary characters in a story that was taking place in my head.”
The trio parts ways, but not for long. Adam’s chance meeting with Born is soon repeated, this time in a seedy student bar where, after the briefest of conversations, Born offers to set Adam up as the editor of a literary magazine. Adam agrees and, just like that, tumbles down the rabbit hole of Born’s twisted world. An affair with Margot, a botched mugging, and a brutal murder all follow in quick succession. In this heightened reality, Born’s true nature emerges. So does Adam’s.
Just as you’re making sense of the cat-and-mouse game Auster has set in motion, he hands the story off to someone else. It’s suddenly 40 years later, and the pages you’ve just read turn out to be the opening of Adam’s memoir. Jim, an old college friend, is now the narrator of the tale, which Adam has divided into the four seasons of the year 1967. We now see Adam from Jim’s point of view, learn that he was “handsome as a movie star” and that, in the eyes of many of his classmates, he was deemed the most likely of them to find success.
Auster fans will know not to get too comfortable. The narrative soon switches back to Adam, who, in a hallucinatory second-person rush, spins the tale of the hot, humid summer of ’67, spiked with a month of incest and increasing mental instability. Add in a few weeks in Paris, another affair, a botched attempt at revenge, and a run-in with an openly malevolent Born, and not one centimeter of space in the entire universe seems safe.
It’s classic Auster, of course, the story within the story. His novel City of Glass, part of the New York Trilogy, features Daniel Quinn, a reclusive crime writer whose life swiftly unravels as he pretends to be a private detective named Paul Auster. Timbuktu traces a hobo poet’s final hours from the viewpoint of a dog. The Book of Illusions turns on the question of identity of the filmmaker, Hector Mann, who may or may not be dead.
In Invisible, told by multiple characters at different points in time, the ground never stops shifting. Even when we’ve been handed all the pieces, things still are not what they seem. Here’s Jim, discussing his edits of Adam Walker’s memoir:
“I have already described how I revamped Walker’s notes for Fall. As for the names, they have been invented according to Gwyn’s instructions, and the reader can therefore be assured that Adam Walker is not Adam Walker. Gwen Walker Tedesco is not Gwen Walker Tedesco…Last of all, I don’t suppose it is necessary to add that my name is not Jim.”
So nothing is what it seems except, of course, Auster’s own seeming ceaseless questions about identity, memory, and character. Readers hoping for answers this time around are out of luck. Like a hound on the hunt, you chase and race after the scent of a resolution. Auster, meanwhile, if he does indeed know what he thinks, is still too foxy to share.