By Jeff Turrentine
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
By Paul Auster
Thorndike Press. 420 pp. $31.95
Paul Auster is best known as a writer of lean, genre-tinged novels whose unaffected prose belies their philosophical complexity. But he's also one of our most playful novelists, a lover of narrative labyrinths on par with Borges, to whom he has often been compared. For some, Auster's penchant for romantic irony is a distracting tic; for others, it's why they enjoy reading him in the first place.
His latest novel, "Invisible," finds him returning to the same thematic territory he has long occupied -- the four-way intersection of memory, language, fate and self-discovery -- with that playfulness very much intact. His subject here is the memoirist's subjective truth, and his object is to get us thinking about the ways in which it is constructed, edited and processed into what we think of as objective reality.
In the first of the novel's four sections we meet Adam Walker, an undergraduate at Columbia University with writerly aspirations who likes to translate French verse in his free time. Already we think we can hear the hum of the metafictional machinery starting up: Walker reminds us not only of Marco Fogg, the hero of Auster's 1989 novel "Moon Palace" (same university, same proclivities) but also of Auster himself, who attended Columbia during the late 1960s and translated French poetry as he dreamed of becoming a writer. If we also happen to know that Auster has written novels in which characters from his previous books make appearances ("Travels in the Scriptorium"), as well as novels in which he interpolates himself into the plot ("City of Glass"), then we suspect we may be headed once again into the hall of mirrors.
Are we? Of course we are. As we learn of Adam's relationship with Rudolf Born, a supercilious Columbia professor, and Margot, Born's lover, everything reinforces our belief that we are reading a tale narrated in the first person by Adam, about events that have taken place in his past. In fact, as we learn in the next section, we have actually been reading a fragment of Adam's unpublished memoir -- a fragment that is being shared with us by a successful novelist named James Freeman, who knew Adam when they attended Columbia together 40 years ago.
Adam, now sick and dying, has asked his old friend to look at the chapter and share his opinion. When Freeman writes back encouragingly, Adam admits to him that he's having trouble continuing. Freeman responds by suggesting that Adam try writing the next section in a different narrative voice -- the bifurcation of voices being a trick that had liberated Freeman from his own writer's block when composing his own memoir years earlier.
Do I even need to mention that Auster's first book was a memoir ("The Invention of Solitude") divided into two parts, with the first part employing the first-person voice and the second part employing the third-person voice? By this point in "Invisible," we have traveled so deep into the hall of mirrors that we may be feeling dizzy. "If I hadn't been told it was a true story, I probably would have plunged in and taken those sixty-plus pages for the beginning of a novel," Freeman tells us, before adding parenthetically that "writers do, after all, sometimes inject characters who bear their own names into works of fiction." (Auster must have taken the rest of the day off after typing those words, and he deserved to.)
Later in the novel, Freeman becomes the editorial custodian of his old friend's uncompleted memoir. Auster's final bit of mischief is to make Freeman himself unsure as to what he's holding in his hands. Was Adam telling the truth about Rudolf Born? Was he making things up, projecting his own skittering subjective truth onto the stone tablet of objective reality?
Freeman's only choice, he decides after consulting with Adam's sister and the other women in his life, is to publish the memoir under his own name, as a hybrid of fiction and memoir. (And his own name, it will come as no surprise, is not really James Freeman.)
"I sometimes confuse my thoughts about the world with the world itself," says one character at the end of "Invisible." "I'm sorry if I offended you." Some undoubtedly will be offended; you either enjoy the dizzy feeling you get from being lost in the funhouse, or you feel queasy and head for the exit. One hopes that, in this case, readers will stay for the duration. The pleasures found inside are well worth the labor required to uncover them.
For good measure, Auster ends his novel with an image that seems borrowed from his 1990 novel "The Music of Chance": people hard at work chiseling large stones into smaller ones -- laboring, like readers, like writers, to reduce unwieldy, monolithic life into memories and stories that can be passed around and shared.
Turrentine is a writer in Los Angeles.