Seeing Through Auster

What is it that’s “invisible” in Paul Auster’s latest novel? It’s not the truth. The truth is there… somewhere … though choosing it from all the various claims and denials batted around by three different narrators and one or two other characters might be an impossible task. Or maybe it’s not. Let’s settle on this: the truth is not apparently visible.

What’s invisible is Auster himself. In the past, Auster has inserted himself to various degrees in his writing (remember the detective Paul Auster in City of Glass?). And his work has often focused on identity; how it’s established and how it’s held. In Invisible, Auster explores how our identity is developed and perceived, by ourselves and others, through the stories we tell.  Here the stories are of  trust, love, murder and incest, made-up and otherwise. Just when we think we know one of the characters, and through his/her telling, the others, the point-of view changes and the new narrator destroys what we believed about them all. As we take more and more interest in the entwining tales, the author of them all goes transparent.

It’s 1967 and Adam Walker,  a student at Columbia and aspiring poet (as was Auster) is befriended by an excitable, mysterious older Frenchman, Rudolf Born, and his younger woman friend Margot. The two become entangled in Walker’s’ already tangled life. Born proposes generously funding a literary journal that Adam will edit. In Born’s absence, Margot and Adam begin sleeping together, apparently with Born’s blessing. All seems hope and promise until Adam and Born are accosted walking on Riverside Drive and Born reacts with surprising brutality. Or does he?

This first of four sections seems to fall into a literary model of the type represented by John Fowles’ The Magus. A young man, full of aspiration and desire, falls in with an unpredictable, Svengali-like mentor who, through sinister manipulation, seems intent on teaching his young protege  the cruel and trustless realities of life. But in part II we’re propelled forward some 30 years and given a new narrator, Adam’s Columbia-era friend Jim, who hasn’t heard from him all this time.  Adam is dying from leukemia and entrusts the story–so it was only a story?–of his relationship with Born and Margot to his old friend. Their correpsondence reveals much more of Adam’s story, including his deep, incestuous relationship with his sister. After the Riverside Drive incident, Adam breaks with Born and questions his own involvement. He travels to Paris where he again takes up with Margot. Then he runs into Born, who has become a cipher that marks the point Adam’s life lost all innocence (or was it that incestuous experience with his year-older sister when he was fourteen?).  The affair with Margot becomes less serious even as it’s announced that Born will marry an old acquaintance with a strangely desirable daughter. Adam, anxious to expose Born’s murderous behavior, hatches his own magus plot, one that can only end in emotional–and dangerous– disaster. The daughter, years later, tells her own story.  As Auster writes, “Compelling as those twists and turns might be, they amount to just one story among an infinity of stories, one film among a multitude of films…”

Auster has discussed the power of the stories we tell ourselves previously, notably in 2008’s Man In the Dark. Here, the theme isn’t as much about creating reality as defining it. Identity creates truth, circumstance defines identity and truth, real or perceived, influences circumstance.  Adam and his sister are drawn together by the death of their younger brother. That leads them to intimacy. Born, something of a double agent, defines himself as he sees fit, leaving others to their suspicions. In his pursuit of revenge, Adam seeks a new identity but becomes something entirely unexpected, by him and the reader.

Invisible cements Auster’s reputation as a mystery writer, one who pursues the various clues of meaning towards an ever-elusive answer. In this sense, his writing is as captivating as any detective fiction while vastly superior in psychic and existential puzzles. This writer-as-detective is a stand-in for all of us who have ever wondered who or what to believe. Believing ourselves could be a mistake. Fashioning our lives as stories may or may not help make sense of it all.–Cabbage Rabbit

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