on Invisible, a novel by Paul Auster (Henry Holt)

Spend an hour talking with a poet or novelist about their work and chances are they’ll say something about the need to avoid repetition, to change and reinvent. In a 2005 interview with Jonathan Lethem in The Believer, Paul Auster gave his rendition of holding patterns are forbidden.

“PA: You try to surprise yourself. You want to go against what you’ve done before. You want to burn up and destroy all your previous work. You want to reinvent yourself with every project. Once you fall into habits, I think, you’re dead as an artist. You have to challenge yourself and never rest on your laurels, never think about what you’ve done in the past. Just say, that’s done, now I’m tackling something else. It’s certain that the world’s large and interesting enough to take a different approach each time you sit down to write about it.

JL: Anyway, your voice is going to be helplessly your own. And so the books will be united despite your attempts to ignore your own earlier work.

AusterColorHead.jpgPA: Exactly, because all your attempts to flee from yourself are useless. All you discover is yourself and your old obsessions. All the maniacal repetitions of how you think. But you try. And I think there’s some dignity in that attempt.”

It’s been said that a poet is like a bird who sings one or two notes over and over again. Nevertheless, her face colors with commitment as she insists, ‘I don’t want to be a poet who repeats. I’m listening for a new sound.” When not writing, we writers spend a lot of time maintaining our dignity.

“What the poet is listening for as he writes is the sound a new truth makes,” wrote William Meredith. But an old truth, encountered in one’s twenties, may persist in eluding and agitating the poet in his fifties. His voice is the sound of truth abrading his psyche.

The contents of the writer’s toolbox rarely change. The question is whether a semi-concealed secret continues to haunt one’s materials. “The mystery that stimulates creation,” said Cesare Pavese, “must come about of itself, through an obstacle encountered unawares during the course of our very effort of clarification. Nothing is more obscene than an artist who coldly plays around with his own mysterious unreasoning intuition.”

AusterCover.jpgSo Auster may assert (as we all do) that reinvention and fresh habits are necessary, but now that his fifteenth novel, Invisible, has been published, I’m looking for traces of the obstacle his receptivity supposedly allows to disrupt his “maniacal repetitions.” But as he said, “All you discover is yourself and your old obsessions.”

AusterColorRoom.jpgInvisible adheres to the paradigm of its predecessors. Theo Tait described Auster's model in The London Review of Books: “There is a man. He is alone in a room, or a house, or a car – some solitary and private American space, usually in a city. He is doing something automatic and reflexive … in the aftermath of an under-discussed catastrophe. Then, quite by chance, something odd happens to him … As a result of this chance event, his life changes; perhaps it changes so much that it becomes a new life, a different life. There is also, most likely, a story within the story; and possibly another story within that one. These stories echo each other, throwing an uncertain light on one another, suggesting meanings that are never made explicit. At this point the novel begins to levitate slightly, as the different levels of reality unseat each other.”

In part I of Invisible, the man is Adam Walker, narrating “in the aftermath of an under-discussed catastrophe,” in this case the murder of a young would-be felon by the sinister Rudolph Born, visiting professor of international affairs at Columbia where Walker is an undergraduate. After meeting Walker by chance at a party, Born stakes the handsome, precocious, and untested student to several thousand dollars to launch a literary magazine, but the murder ends those plans. Born leaves for Paris; Walker remains silent, “the most reprehensible thing I have ever done.”

AusterColorRectangle.jpgPart I turns out to be the first chapter of an unfinished memoir written by the older and fatally ill Walker. In Part II, his college friend, the now successful author James Freeman, becomes the narrator and possessor of Walker’s text. Auster’s playfulness with intertextuality, fictiveness, and narrative truth is as entertaining as ever. As Walker, Freeman, and a third narrator, Cécile Juin, recount events, we begin to understand that as much as each person wants to reveal truths or admit mistakes, their abilities aren’t equal to the surge of power, fear, ignorance and desire that must be driving events.

Tait says Auster’s “cool, barebones prose reads as if it has been translated from the French.” But also, in Invisible the narrators speak or write a merely adequate language. In Paris, Born appears about to marry the widow Hélène Juin. Cécile is her daughter. Walker turns up in a year abroad program. In his memoir, he writes that Hélène “begins to show her true colors.” When years later Freeman meets Cécile in Paris, he says “my defenses were down.” So the narrative lives with idioms and cliches, yet Auster’s prose seems both taut and effortless. The tautness defuses our instinct to peer under the surface, and the fluid writing gives us the pleasure of easeful immersion. The plot entices even as its parts don’t fully illuminate the characters’ motivations. I greedily took in Walker’s incestuous relationship with his sister Gwyn, then had to live with my unrequited urge to analyze.

AusterBigBooks.jpgAuster has always been interested in tentative identity and slippery interpretations of events, but the personalities of his characters are never plumbed. Tait says “febrile subjectivity yields to narrative convention” in Auster’s novels, meaning the reader experiences something like the blending of European modernism and Dashiell Hammett.

So then, what is the obstacle Auster puts in his own way to renew his writing? Perhaps it's the temptation to decide in advance where the mystery lies – not just the plot-based mystery, but the experiential one -- a temptation so strong and habitual ("encountered unawares") that it persists as a worthy adversary from novel to novel.

As Michael Dirda said, “His art, in its serious playfulness, aims to heighten our awareness of life’s overall unreality, to recreate on the page some of its wondrous serendipity and strangeness.” Representing the only visible remnants of Adam Walker’s life, Invisible stays memorable even as it fades like memory itself.

[Published November 2, 2009. 320 pages, $25.00 hardcover]

On Reading Invisible

Thank you for yet another thoughtful review. I've just finished reading "Invisible" and I found it most worthy. As usual with Auster, text, or the narrative strategy, is a more pressing matter than either plot or character. But in the end it is the character Cecile Juin (who studies writing and writers) who stayed with me -- as she, the last narrator, picked her way back down the hill (in sensible shoes this time), fleeing Born and maybe (I'd hoped) the whole damn thing -- but, encountering a field of labourers, now replaced with the myriad sounds of invisible and patient servitude.

Your Auster Review

I guess it comes down to: If you like what an author does habitually, then you don't hear the repetitions as laziness. I don't think Auster copies himself even though he makes similar moves from book to book. I'll definitely look into Invisible. Thanks for this thoughtful review.

excellent article

Paul Auster.
I appreciate your reviews more than anyone else's as you always alert me to new writers. Grace