Paul Auster’s latest novel, Invisible, is a meditation upon the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It explores the intensity of experiences in that period, and how our responses to those experiences can shape and pre-occupy us for the rest of our lives.
The central character is Adam Walker, who we meet as a poetry student at New York’s Columbia University in 1967. Walker bumps into Rudolf Born, a French visiting professor, and his girlfriend, Margot, at a party. Born draws Walker closer to him, offering to fund a literary magazine that Walker would edit, and essentially arranging for Walker to sleep with Margot. The young Adam is conflicted, alternatively appalled and fascinated with the seemingly sophisticated but decadent Born. One evening Walker and Born are approached by a mugger, and Born stabs him to death. Walker runs from the scene, but then returns to find the body missing. Born sends Walker a threatening letter, warning him not to talk of it, and runs off to Paris.
This ends the first section of the book. In the second section, we learn that the first is in fact the fragment of a memoir. Adam is now 40 years older, and dying of leukemia. He reaches out to an old friend from Columbia, Jim Freeman, who is a novelist, and asks for help in completing the memoir.
At this point, those familiar with Auster’s works may think: ‘Here we go again.’ With Invisible, Auster has now written 15 novels, of which his most critically acclaimed and best-selling work is The New York Trilogy, a series of books published in 1985. He is best known for literary gamesmanship, using techniques that draw attention to the text itself (which some refer to as ‘intertextuality’) as well as posing philosophical conundrums. This self-referential, formalistic approach is characteristic of late twentieth-century postmodernist literature.
But there’s a difference this time. Invisible shows Auster keeping the literary devices much more under control. The story moves along at a rapid clip, and Auster’s style is crisp and riveting. The changes in narration do not lead us to lose the plot; instead he weaves a mystery we’re invited to help solve. Furthermore, Auster goes beyond formalism and creates engaging characters. It could be argued that the characters are not fully developed or sympathetic, but they are certainly not just ciphers for philosophical positions.