Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: 1967 reimagined

Paul Auster's new novel Invisible is a most welcome return to form. After his unpleasant but readable novel in 2007, Man in the Dark, which had an ending that I would prefer not to return to for the rest of my days, Invisible has the charm of his earlier more metafictional and philosophical works, the reason why Auster is lauded as a rather avant-garde author in the realm of literary fiction.

We are transported to 1967. A sophomore at Columbia University, Adam Walker is a young poet: one that's published a few poems here and there, a review elsewhere. At a party he meets the mysterious French-/Swissman Rudolf Born and his companion Margot. Born is a visiting professor in political science, but is obviously involved in so much more. After captivating them that night, Margot makes a comment to Rudolf, that Adam is one of the most attractive young men she has seen, which then makes Rudolf - most bizarrely - want to help Adam in any way possible, by helping him start a literary journal, paying Adam a stipend with the condition that the journal would publish true literature.

This all goes sour though when Adam is invited to Rudolf's home and asked point blank in front of Born and his wife whether he finds the latter attractive because Margot would like to sleep with him. This leads to a cascade of 'misunderstandings' that conclude with Adam and Born being mugged by a young man; at gunpoint, Born pulls a switchblade and knifes their mugger. At that moment, Adam is tortured with this knowledge, tries to go to the police and reveal the truth about this mugger's death, but finds out he's too late as Born has fled the country.

It wouldn't be an Auster novel if there weren't any flips by now. We soon realise that Adam is not narrating this story but rather one of his college friends, Jim, who is in fact a novelist, one that's gotten in touch with Adam during his dying days. Unable to finish his memoir, Adam has contacted Jim to reimagine his life based on the notes he has left. The rest of his life is tortured by Rudolf Born's deeds, but also the somewhat odd sexuality Adam had for his sister - one that would feel very comfortable in an early Ian McEwan work. More turn of events are experienced, and the reader feels nice and somewhat discombobulated, like in the best of Auster novels.

Invisible, at its best, is like a literary thriller - one where nothing is what it seems, where the rug is thrown from under us to reveal the fact that what we're reading is in fact lies, made up to protect the players involved, but also made up in order to entice the reader, to make it a novel that will get its reader to the end. 'In order to tell the truth, we'll have to fictionalize it,' Born says, a very Auster-like quote, one that manifests a power of the imagination as well as an evil desire to manipulate fact. It's running in the same vein of JM Coetzee's trilogy of fictionalised memoirs - Boyhood, Youth, and most recently Summertime - in that Invisible may be a revision of what Auster's life could have been like when he lived in Paris as a student, when he attended Columbia University, just with a few details added in order for a more solid truth to be exhibited. This is not to say that Adam Walker is Paul Auster (although the names certainly have some sort of phonic connection), but it is a work that wants you to question how different they really are.


Greg Zimmerman said...

Yes! I was terrified that this book would suck and had been ignoring it and any press about it until I read a good review on a blog. So, thanks, you've convinced me to pick it up. Auster rules!

Salvatore said...

Glad to hear it Greg. I hope you enjoy it, and I'd be curious to hear what you make of it. This makes up for some of the subpar material he's done recently. Though then again, Auster's subpar is a lot of authors' par.

Kari said...

I read The Brooklyn Follies a few months ago and despite using this blog as a way to remember what I've read, I've already forgotten everything about it (guess I could go back and read my review). It didn't stand out at all, so maybe that's not the best example of Auster.