Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 320 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I think I may have developed a wee bit of a literary crush on Paul Auster, although our relationship took a little while to develop. Indeed, I was ready to dump him before it even began, because our first meeting in which I read Oracle Night, back in 2005, was not a particularly pleasant one: I simply didn’t get what he was all about. But then I gave him a second chance and read the New York Trilogy and suddenly it all began to make sense. Auster is a novelist who plays with the format, concentrates on recurring themes (for example, coincidence, writing and story-telling, truth and memory) and often makes himself part of the action.
This novel, his 16th, is one of his more accessible, and would make the perfect introduction to anyone who has yet to try Auster for themselves.
It’s told in four interlocking parts. The first introduces us to Adam Walker, a 20-year-old poet and literature student at Columbia University, who meets Frenchman Rudolf Born, a visiting professor, and his seductive young girlfriend, Margot, at a party. The chance introduction is to have a long-lasting impact on Adam’s life. Initially it all seems rather positive, because Born is a rich man and he’s keen to employ Adam as the editor of a new literary magazine he wants to launch. But then it all goes terribly wrong, for reasons I won’t divulge, and Adam finds himself wishing he’d never met Born, who comes across as quite a creepy, violent, narcissist capable of the most hideous crime.
The second part is told from James (Jim) Freeman’s perspective. He once attended classes at Columbia with Adam, although they were never close, and went on to become a very successful writer. The pair fell out of touch, but then 38 years later, Jim receives a part-written manuscript from Adam and asks for his honest opinion of it. The manuscript, entitled Summer, is included, and forms the bulk of this part of Invisible. It tells the story of what happened to Adam after his falling out with Born in the spring of 1967, and includes an eye-opening, somewhat racy, account of Adam’s incestuous relationship with his sister.
The third part is again told from Jim’s perspective, with the second part of Adam’s manuscript, entitled Fall, included. This details Adam’s move to Paris and his half-cooked ploy to extract revenge on Rudolph Born on home turf. It also recounts his friendship with Born’s step-daughter.
The fourth and final part has Jim meet Adam’s sister, Gwyn, a 61-year-old beauty, to discuss whether the manuscript should ever be published given it has quite damaging revelations about her in the text. Born’s step-daughter also has her chance to tell her side of the story.
As you can tell, there’s quite a lot of jumping around of perspectives, although it’s all told in the first person. It’s only Adam’s manuscript that switches around. But this is fairly typical Aster fare, because he has a penchant for including a book within a book, so what you end up reading is a multi-layered narrative. It’s a bit like sitting in front of a mirror with a mirror behind you reflecting a never-ending set of images of a person looking in the mirror looking at a person looking in a mirror and so on.
There’s no denying I loved this book. I raced through it in just a matter of days and found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it. There’s something about Auster’s work that unsettles the unconscious mind, so that certain scenes and characters will pop into your head unannounced. I have only read a very small selection of his extensive back catalogue but Invisible is one of the better ones I’ve had the joy of reading. Definitely recommended, regardless of whether you’re an Auster virgin or not.