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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

If Shakespeare forever remains the master of the play within a play, Paul Auster
has staked his claim to the book within the book.   His characters often write
books, or plan to do so.  They anguish over manuscripts, obsess about texts,
find their personal destinies via real or imagined narratives.    Even more to the
point, their very existence is frequently presented as situated within books or
possible books—and I’m not talking about the one you hold in your hand while
reading Mr. Auster.   As these meta-narratives battle for supremacy, readers
are left to puzzle over their own changing relationship to texts that may
eventually prove to be mere texts within texts.  Welcome to the world of fiction
as a house of mirrors!

In an era in which reality and truth are perceived
by many as problematic, Auster has emerged as
a seminal author.   Every shift in his fictions is
contextualized.  The “truth” of chapter one may
turn out to be an imaginative exercise after chapter
two.  Storytelling of this sort is a type of multitasking,
impressive when it works, but forever running the
risk of coming across as cold and almost inhuman.  
One reads Auster for many reasons, but usually for
the light rather than the warmth.

Yet his latest novel
Invisible evokes a more emotionally
charged atmosphere than one usually finds with
Auster—and without sacrificing the multilayered
narrative structure that is his trademark.   Human
relationships are as important as textual relationships here.  Love, passion,
murder, revenge, renunciation, obsession:  all these ingredients, ones we
associate more with classical drama than the post-modern novel, figure
prominently in
Invisible.   Yes, plot, that most mistreated and under-appreciated
ingredient in serious fiction, is given the red carpet treatment.


See also
Paul Auster: The New York Trilogy, reviewed by Ted Gioia
Paul Auster: Man in the Dark, reviewed by Ted Gioia


The first chapter of
Invisible  ostensibly relates the activities of one Adam
Walker, a student at Columbia University and aspiring poet, during the Spring of
1967.  Walker meets a bristly yet intriguing visiting professor named Rudolf Born
at a party, an encounter that sets of a strange chain of events.   Born offers to
provide Walker with ample funds to start a literary magazine, a proposition that
the young man finds as alluring as it is unexpected.   Walker, for his part,
discovers that Born’s female companion can be even more alluring, and falls into
a brief, torrid affair with her.  Yet this entanglement, which in the hands of
another author could be the centerpiece of the novel, is a minor complication
and a simple one compared with the murder that the professor commits with
the poet as witness and possibly complicit in its cover-up.   The chapter ends
with Walker finally going to the police after hesitating too long, thus allowing
Born to escape to Paris to avoid interrogation and possibly prosecution.  

In the second section of the book we discover that the account we have just
read is from a non-fiction manuscript sent in the year 2007 to James Freeman, a
successful writer who knew Walker decades before.   We also learn that Walker
is in failing health and desperately wants to complete his memoir of the year
1967 while he still has the strength to do so.  He sends Freeman a second
section of the book, which is a raw confessional account of a passionate affair
with his own sister from the summer of that year.  Here again the meta-
narrative structure operates in tandem with a disturbing intensity in the core
story—and the power of the account is all the greater because Auster has
constructed a relationship between the “texts” that is plausible, at times
painfully realistic, and not just a post-modern conceit.

Freeman has arranged to meet Walker during a trip to the West Coast, but
when he arrives he is told that his friend died a few days before.  But Walker
left behind a sketchy outline of the third section of his 1967 memoir.  Again
Auster reaches for effects of high drama in his book-inside-the-book.  After the
murder and incest themes of the two opening portions, Auster continues to
draw from his Attic tragedy playbook with an account of deception and
revenge.  Walker, now situated Paris in the Fall of 1967, schemes to disrupt the
forthcoming marriage of Born, even if it means debasing himself in the process.  

The story could very well be complete at this point, but Auster reaches for one
more surprise.  Freeman is focused on finding out whether the explosive
revelations from Walker’s memoir of 1967 are true, or just some deranged sort
of wish-fulfillment from a man on his deathbed.   He travels to Paris where he
tracks down a woman who had played a key part in the events of that year.   
She shares a section of her diary which—form a completely different
perspective—continues and concludes the account begun by the late Adam
Walker.

All in all,
Invisible is a virtuoso exercise in unfolding a single story across
different narrative voices, each with its own varying degree of reliability and
first-hand knowledge.  Yet it could all collapse into a cold chess game without
the animating spirit that Auster impresses on the various accounts that
comprise this book.  Don’t minimize the importance of this achievement.  In an
age in which fiction is increasingly gravitating toward unadorned and
emotionally direct storytelling, and the experimental novel is an endangered
species, Auster gives us a jolt by showing  that the same book can succeed on
both fronts.  


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.
Invisible

by Paul Auster
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
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Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
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www.tedgioia.com

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