Invisible – Paul Auster’s latest

It's coming...

It's coming...

I have just finished reading Paul Auster’s Invisible. The good news is that it is not another Blue Jay Way (see my post of 27 November 2008). I cut out all of the reviews of this book, Auster’s thirteenth novel, but deliberately refrained from reading them until I had read the book itself and formed my own view. So; I enjoyed it. But, as a budding author myself, I confess that a good part of that enjoyment came from studying the writing rather than simply reading it. Auster is a very skillful writer and he resorts frequently to clever devices, but that’s part of the problem. On the whole, the reviewers were similarly critical. Invisible is supposedly a conjunction of three people’s manuscripts, or writings: Jim Freeman, successful author, writes the overall account and the bridging passages; Adam Walker, student friend of Freeman’s and now dying of leukemia, manages to write two chapters of an autobiographical account, and leaves notes for the third chapter, which Freeman helpfully writes out for the reader; and Parisian Cécile, who loved Walker briefly, provides her diary entries to finish the tale off. There are all the standard Auster devices in here: dead siblings; books-within-books (a literary version of set theory); dying narrators. There is also a new one – sibling incest – borrowed from John Irving (Hotel New Hampshire). It all fits together and the tale dutifully twists several times but, at the end, the reader is left asking ‘what was all of that about’? And why does Auster need to hide behind various ciphers of himself (which is what the various ‘other authors’ seem like)? Are these, as one reviewer has argued, alibis because Auster is unable to take the plunge and describe difficult things directly as himself (with the risk that his writing might be considered as having not been up to it)? Alternatively, if Auster is (as I would prefer to believe) trying to say something about different versions of reality, then the exercise doesn’t really come off. There is a lot of atmospheric material in the story about the 1960s – in New York, in Paris; a period and places that Auster knew well then. And I couldn’t help but feel (not for the first time) that he has been plundering his diaries and notebooks. Well, of course, it’s the first commandment of all writing – write about what you know, or about what you have known. Since Auster is a very skillful writer and knows all ten commandments, we must assume that he is making it feel that way. But why? I think Auster is deliberately leading the reader into voyeurism – not once, but several times over. There’s the incest and the lesbianism and the violence. But there’s also Auster’s Jim Freeman declaring that everything and everyone in the story has been changed to maintain their anonymity. By definition, this cannot include Auster’s own identity. ‘Look,’ the author seems to be saying, ‘some of this might have happened to me – but, then again, maybe it didn’t.’ This is not the great book of Auster’s maturity as an artist, but I like to think that he is limbering up for one.

2 Comments

  1. barbara gessler

    05/01/2010 at 17:07

    Dear Martin, I had not read the critics on Invisible when I found the book (in Stockholm, after the Press Officers’ Seminar!) and was so happy as I am every time I discover my favourite author has a new novel out. But, this one really disappointed me a lot. There have been others which have thrilled me less but this one beats them, unfortunately. As an example, I found the atmospherical descriptions mostly completely unrealistic and uninteresting. I agree with your voyeurism argument, too. I am posting this since I was really a bit annoyed and can only hope you are right about a new mature master piece coming up soon which I will, again, devour immediately!

  2. Martin

    06/01/2010 at 18:35

    I can only agree, dear Barbara. But the alternative to impending masterpiece (continued decline into complete rubbish) is too awful to contemplate…

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