Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, literary fiction, New York, Paul Auster, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘Invisible’ by Paul Auster


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.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Paul Auster, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Man in the Dark’ by Paul Auster


Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 160 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Paul Auster is one of those authors you either love or hate. He has a very dedicated cult following, but I have never been a member of that club.

The first Auster I read was Oracle Night, charmed in part by the coverline which claimed that “If you have never read Auster before . . . this is the place to start”. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I struggled with the cold detached prose style. And I simply didn’t “get” the storyline. And yet, months later, I was still thinking about the story and the characters. There was something there that had wormed its way into my brain and would pop into my consciousness when I least expected it. I began to worry that I had written off Auster before giving him a proper chance.

And so that is how I came to read what is probably his most famous novel — or series of novels — New York Trilogy.  And this time, kind of knowing what to expect, I fell in love with Auster’s style and his thematic exploration of stories within stories and of the loneliness of writing and the concept of parallel lives and the blurring of fiction and reality. I loved the book so much I couldn’t bring myself to read anything else by him, although I often pick up his novels in book stores, walk around with them under my arm for a bit and then, chicken that I am, return them to the shelves and opt for something that little bit safer.

Fast forward a couple of years and when I discovered there was a new Auster about to hit the shelves I asked Faber and Faber if they’d be kind enough to send me a review copy, and they very kindly obliged.

Man in the Dark is typical Auster fare. It contains stories within stories within stories, and it plays with the concept that people can inhabit more than one world. It also explores memory, and the differences, if any, between the real and imagined.

It is told through the eyes of August Brill, a 72-year-old invalid, who dreams up stories in his head as a way of overcoming his insomnia. One of these stories is about a young man who awakens in a parallel universe in which September 11 did not happen. The America he finds himself in is not the calm, peaceful nation one would expect but a country at war with itself resulting from the secession of New York and a host of other states unhappy with the 2000 election result that put George W. Bush in power.

It’s a horrifying glimpse of another world that might have been. It reads like something that Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King might have colluded on. It’s dark, menacing and incredibly realistic.

But this is but one narrative thread of Man in the Dark. There is another in which the grieving August Brill recounts his marriage and long life with his now dead but much-loved Sonia to his granddaughter, Katya, who also suffers from insomnia. Katya, too, is grieving for the loss of her boyfriend, Titus, who was murdered in Iraq, and she stalls her grief by watching world movies with her grandfather all day long.

Later, the story of Titus’s untimely death, is also spelled out. So what results is a novel composed of many different stories that share common themes including love, loss, loneliness, fear and war.

Man in the Dark is an immensely readable book that moves along at a fast pace, so fast that I was able to read it in one sitting. There’s little clutter, but there’s a lot of stuff going on, too much, probably, to absorb in one reading. Whether the diehard fans will like it as much as me remains to be seen, but I thought it was an enjoyable, affecting and thought-provoking read, one that I am sure will linger in my mind for a long time to come. Now, if only I was brave enough to explore more of his back catalogue.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Paul Auster, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Oracle Night’ by Paul Auster


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 207 pages; 2005.

Up until now I have been a Paul Auster virgin. I have seen him interviewed several times on television, and appreciate that he is an interesting and accomplished and much heralded author. Whenever I hear his name I automatically think of New York, because he seems synonymous with that city.

Recently, when browsing a local bookstore, I picked up Oracle Night and was charmed by the coverline on the front of the book: “If you have never read Auster before . . . this is the place to start”. I weighed the pros and cons, and then thought, why not?

Essentially Oracle Night is about a novelist recovering from a near-fatal illness. He lives with his wife in New York, and while she’s at work, he spends his days touring the city on foot. One day he buys a notebook from a stationary shop run by a little Chinese man. He brings it home and finds that as soon as he opens it the writer’s block that has plagued him for months completely disappears. Suddenly his imagination comes alive and, in doing so, his own life takes on a surreal, larger than life edge that has him questioning the very essence of who he is, where he’s come from and where he’s going. He begins to scrutinise his relationship with his wife and his friend in ways he had never contemplated before.

Did I like this book? I am still in two minds. It throws normal novel writing conventions out the window. There are stories within stories within stories – and many of them don’t come to any satisfactory conclusion. There’s no real plot to speak of, although the strong characterisation and the hypnotic writing, holds it together. And, in many cases, it asks more questions than it answers. I am still wondering “what the hell was that all about?”

If anyone who has read this book can enlighten me, then please do. In the meantime, let me say it was a fascinating novel, but I wouldn’t rave about it and I have no immediate plans to rush to the bookstore for a feast of more Auster. Although I would never say never.