Auster, Paul (2009), Invisible, Henry Holt
It’s not as awful as I thought it would be. Paul Auster’s most recent novel, Invisible, frequently billed as a return to form, is, indeed, much better than what I read of his recent fare, especially when compared to his dismal Brooklyn Follies. This is not a good book but, in many places, it turns out, it’s a readable one, and while Auster is up to his usual tricks, at least they are well-rehearsed ones. Invisible teems with postmodern feints, with metafictional jabs and intertextual hooks, but like every single book of his I’ve so far read, it delivers a very weak punch. This is baffling in a book that not only takes up or references important issues like racism, but, on a very direct narrative level, throws a story at the reader that contains murder, great quantities of sex, incest and even, possibly, one (or two) secret agents. And there isn’t much else to distract the reader. Invisible displays an obsession with these themes, and it utilizes quite a few of the tricks of the trade to create enough suspense for the reader to read on and on, no matter how much other aspects of the book may annoy him. There are sudden surprises, a revelatory ending and each of the book’s sections ends on a cliffhanger. There is a definite connection of Invisible to many other specimen of the thriller genre. Sadly, this is true for Auster’s writing as well.
Stylistically, a good deal of Invisible is just a little better than reviled genre writers like Dan Brown. This is not to deny the fact that there are many many aspects that set Auster apart from the likes of Dan Brown (who, incidentally, is much better than the smug cliché would have you believe), but the staggeringly low quality of Auster’s prose, especially in his more recent work, has always been a surprise to me, especially considering the far more sophisticated nature of the constructions and ideas that populate his fiction. There’s also a certain skill involved in even the most terrible prose sections, due to the fact that Auster’s prose isn’t uniformly bad. In my review of The Brooklyn Follies I argued that some of the awfulness of his style was part of an unfavorable characterization of the protagonist, narrator and ‘writer’ of the book. Auster does something very similar here. Again, in the character of Adam Walker, there’s an unlikeable protagonist, again, he writes part of the book, again, these sections are remarkably badly written. As the protagonist gradually loses control of his writing, he slips first into a less introspective and then into a syntactically far more reduced style. With each change and reduction, the quality of the writing improves dramatically (though not to a good level). Jim, a famous novelist, who acts as the editor of Walker’s writing, is also using a language that is a cut above Adam’s. Thus, it’s hard to make blanket statements about the book’s writing, although no amount of goodwill will make Invisible a well-written book.
I will inject a warning now. The rest of the review may contain SPOILERS. I will not disclose the final revelation, but since I will definitely comment upon the book’s structure, this may spoil the ‘surprise’ of the reader as certain aspects about the narrative are, suddenly, revealed. I don’t think it’s much of a problem but I just want to be careful here. If you are bent upon reading this book, despite everything I said so far, stop reading this review now, and read the book first. If not, continue, but don’t complain afterwards.
Invisible is consits of four sections. The first is the only one with only a single narrator, un nommé Adam Walker. He tells us a story about meeting a slightly warped Frenchman called Rudolf Born, who draws Walker into a maelstrom of sex and violence. Born, we learn, is highly seductive. Intent upon not missing a single cliché, Auster/Walker constructs that seductiveness as being composed of fear, desire and greed, as Born baits young Walker, an unsuccessful poet/student, with his attractive companion, his funds and an undefinable kind of implicit violence. As the story progresses, he offers Walker a piece of each of the three. He offers him to sleep with Margot, his beautiful girlfriend, he offers him money to set up a literary journal and he embroils him in violence by trying to make him complicit in a murder. These, of course, are all established tropes, usually used to signify ‘decadence’ (throughout the book, there’s also more than just a whiff of Dostoyevskyan disapproval directed at Born). Walker’s stumbling prose, these well-worn ideas and images, together with Auster’s continuous barrage of intertextual references, never lets the reader read this story as believable, but always oddly, coldly constructed, despite the insistently confessional tone that the narrative develops. This is confirmed as the second section starts, where we find that the narrator has changed, and the first section has turned from a narrative that sounds confessional to a ‘confessional story’.
Now, the story is narrated by Jim, who is a famous novelist (I will not start to discuss autobiographical feints in Auster’s prose. It’s a well-explored topic in Auster criticism, and I am, to be honest, not well-read enough in Auster’s work to make a meaningful comparison here. Auster’s, however, clearly toying with these kinds of facts in this story, part of the overall ‘clever’ peregrinations through the modernist and postmodernist toolbox) and who, one fine day (Spring 2007) is sent a manuscript through UPS. The accompanying letter tells him that the manuscript was written by a former acquaintance of his, a fellow student at the time, called Adam Walker, who, as he contemplates his past life on his death bed, has decided to write a story about a particularly fateful year. The story, like Auster’s novel, is supposed to be in four parts, one for each season of the year, and in each of Invisible’s four sections we encounter the corresponding part of Walker’s manuscript (although the last section, in a neat twist, exchanges Walker’s unwritten close of his book with a text by a different character, marking the manuscript’s presence through the absence of actual words by Walker). This change of narrator is one of the surprises I mentioned. All of a sudden, Auster’s camera pans out, seizing the previous chapter’s narrative as an object, ejecting the reader from it and making him evaluate it from the outside.
The second section also contains the next part of Walker’s story, sent to Jim at his own request. We learn that Walker had had a brief sexual episode with his sister, when he was still young and that, that fateful summer, this episode was picked up again, as he and his sister Gwyn launched into an impassioned but secret incestuous affair. This is the major point of the second section. Walker’s writing here is different. On Jim’s advice, he drops the first person narrator and uses, interestingly, a second person narrator – an immediate improvement, since it helps curb Walker’s obsession with poorly phrased introspection. Walker’s story itself is, or could be, hot and sizzling; there’s a certain powerful energy here, but the writing inhibits us from being caught up too deep in it. Sometimes, it reads like the paraphrase of a different, genuinely hot and erotic story. This absence is, in a way, symbolic for a different absence, Walker’s: as we learn in the third section, Walker has died shortly after sending the pages that comprise the second part of his manuscript to Jim, so while Jim is reading the story not as a literary artifact but as the confession of a friend, as part of a specific kind of communication between two living people, he is actually mistaken about the nature, not necessarily of the text, but of his reading, which he only finds out after having drafted and composed (but not sent) a response to what he assumes is Walker’s part of the exchange.
In fact, Walker’s death ossifies the story into, well, literature and as the book progresses, it becomes subject to the tools that we use on literary (whether fictional or nonfictional) texts but not normally on letters or everyday talk. From this, we launch into the third section of Walker’s story, which contains the last extant part of walker’s manuscript, handed over to Jim by Walker’s grieving sister. In this part, we accompany Walker on a trip to Paris, where he will meet Born again, Margot and Born’s new fiancé (and her daughter). He will leave Paris in disgrace which is where the manuscript breaks off. This part of the manuscript is written in the third person, and the more it progresses, the more reduced Walker’s style becomes. Soon it’s almost exclusively paratactic, later, Walker elides even the names and uses one letter only to designate the persons. Walker’s life is running out, he’s in a hurry to get the story out, not stopping for sentimentality or even introspection. As his manuscript nears its end, more and more of Walker’s authorial persona is wrung from the book, and suddenly Walker’s story becomes highly readable. For all the sorrow, fear and intrigue that Walker has, heretofore, tried to inject into depictions of Rudolph Born, it is only in these last pages, wrested from his death-bed, that Born actually does become intriguing.
To Invisible‘s detriment, as Walker’s persona retreats, cedes ground to the story, Auster’s persona becomes more prominent. It is impossible not to see Auster’s overeager hand at work in the book up to this point. It’s all so obviously constructed as a discourse on themes like memory, reality and narrative. Unlike genuinely clever but subtle writers like Brian Evenson, Auster always loved to flaunt his cleverness, express it in the most obvious and plain way possible, and so it is here as well. There is Rudolph Born, who the narrator said reminded him of Bertran de Born, a Provençal poet, immortalized by Dante in the Inferno
Now you can see atrocious punishment,
you who, still breathing, go to view the dead:
see if there’s any pain as great as this.
And so that you may carry news of me,
know that I am Bertran de Born, the one
who gave bad counsel to the fledgling king.
[…] Because I severed those so joined, I carry–
alas – my brain dissevered from its source,
which is within my trunk. […] (Inferno, Canto XXVIII ll 130-141, here in the Mandelbaum translation).
Born is a complicated reference. A writer as well read as Auster will have read him first in Ezra Pound’s translation, and will have found a very violent, grandiloquent poet singing songs in praise of war. Auster retranslated a well known poem of his (which Pound also translated!) and diverges from Pounds rendering of the text: Auster’s translation is more cautious, less euphorically bellicose, and with the specific context that violence had in Pound’s work (and let’s not forget Marinetti and other futurists), Auster’s translation is in itself a commentary on what Rudolf Born represents. In a related way, Born and Margot’s relationship can be read as a clever reversal of the marriage of le bon roi Henri and Marguerite de Valois. Or take Adam Walker, whose story reminded me both of Henry Roth’s story as depicted in Mercy of a Rude Stream (with another clever reversal) and that of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, as depicted in Exit Ghost. Both of those suites of books and their main characters, additionally, engage ideas of biography and autobiography, both, Henry Roth’s more closely than Philip Roth’s, are autobiographical in inspiration and gesture. If we accept the Roth/Zuckerman reference, is the diary (the form, not content of it) at the end a reference to Amy Bellette and Roth’s Ghost Writer, and Zuckerman’s fantasy in that book connected to the dubious epistemology status of parts of Walker’s narrative? There are hundreds of college term papers buried in this book, which reads as if Auster decided to take a basket of ideas and throw them at a wall to see which will stick.
But, at the end, with Walker fading, Auster’s ego (or Jim’s) rises once more and he/Jim decide to make everything just a bit more obvious. I’m as much of a fan of Lacan’s work as the next man, but Auster’s plain use of Lacan’s three orders in constructing the various levels of reality in the book (the book’s narrative always clearly, boringly, as narrative, declining reliability and directness) is not interesting, partly, certainly, because Auster clothes this in his ham-fisted language that has a hard time being subtle anyway. After 200+ pages of indirection, of playing hide and seek with biographies, truth and memory, Jim tells us that he changed every name upon publishing Walker’s story. But not just that, he mentions to us every name he changed. We’re talking about almost a page of names he changed, and it’s not just plain exchanges of names, these are transpositions. There are connections between the names, these relations he professes to have kept in place, thus acknowledging the immense amount of interpretation that has gone into his editing of the book. This is very obvious, very plain, and very, very dull. Auster saps every bit of creative thinking on the part of the reader from the book by forcing these passages on him. Again, feel free to imagine the tens of term papers to be spun from this premise alone. All this is potentially interesting, as is his comparison of sex and violence, as tropes of human interaction, gendered & all; it’s not even just Auster’s writing that ruins it all for me. See, if we’re honest, there are plenty of bad stylists who write breathtaking books as far as ideas are concerned, but Auster isn’t one of them.
Mostly, because Auster’s main problem is elsewhere. Bertran de Born may be a meaningful reference in more ways than the one I outlined. Dante has him describe himself as having a”brain dissevered from its source”. This describes Auster’s situation stunningly well. Auster, in this book and others (though not in all) is a profoundly noncommittal writer. While his book, through the, uh, deconstruction of autobiography and complex use of incest, sex and violence, criticises legitimizing discourses and pointing out the construct behind what is perceived as reality, Auster’s book also expresses a yearning for the réel, and he constructs his own book actually with just these same assumptions that he, on a formal level, criticizes. His strength was never one of commitment or convictions. His characters are frequently felons, liars or deviant in other ways but in Auster’s books these issues are formalized, turned into literary issues.
There is, I grant you this, a certain appeal in that, but Auster distances himself obsessively from the sources, from actual issues, his work transforms issues that matter into clever things. This is exhausting sometimes and, frankly, annoying at others. There is one example near the end where two observations of black workers frame a pivotal event. In a different writer’s hand, these observations would have shed light on the power structure that underlied that event, and Auster has presented everything necessary for it, but all of this, in the end, dissipates into a rhythm, a sound, abstract music. The more one invests in Auster the more frustrated and tired one becomes. The formulaic and distanced style of the first section should be a warning to skim this book, glance at it. It is, in a very superficial and quick reading, that the book yields most. It’s like a clever movie, throwing all kinds of ideas and plots at you and you should enjoy the two hours, but be prepared for an immensely cold, impersonal work, utterly devoid of any commitment except to the author’s ego.
Here is my review of In the Country of Last Things and here of Brooklyn Follies.
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