Paul Auster, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt, 2009). 308 pp. $25.00.
Paul Auster has always been fascinated with the kinds of fiction that elbow storytelling ahead of every other motive for writing. Before publishing his first novel at the age of thirty-eight—City of Glass, in which a mystery writer impersonates a detective named Paul Auster, was short-listed for the 1985 Edgar Award—he had put in a long literary apprenticeship, conscientiously developing a prose style ideally suited to storytelling projects.
But Auster is interested in the thirst for story only to frustrate it. What is knowingly untold calls the rest of the tale into question. In his fifteenth novel, he takes the material for a thriller (“Don’t you just love that word,” his villain says) and revamps it into a shifting conundrum of texts that refer to other texts, which are hard-covered within a novel that says of its main character: “Adam Walker is not Adam Walker.” Auster offers another demonstration, if another demonstration is needed, that there is no identity between fictional worlds and the world of finite actuality. In his latest novel, the domain in which murder leads to actual death rather than another turn of the fictional screw, is entirely Invisible.
Adam Walker is a twenty-year-old sophomore at Columbia University—a young man from the North Jersey suburbs—in 1967. (That Auster was himself, in 1967, a twenty-year-old sophomore at Columbia University—a young man from the North Jersey suburbs—is merely a trap set out for the fatuous critic who assumes that all fiction is autobiographical. Of course it isn’t.) A “know-nothing boy with an appetite for books” and the ambition to become a poet, he is smoking alone at a party when a visiting professor from France strikes up an acquaintance, introducing himself as Rudolf Born. Auster (sorry: I mean Adam, of course) immediately thinks of the medieval Provençal poet Bertran de Born. Any undergraduate poet would.
I had to look him up. There really was a medieval Provençal poet named Bertran de Born. And Adam’s description of him is on the historical mark:
The woman in Born’s life takes an immediate interest in Adam. According to Born, Margot is “extremely worried” about him. The truth, as he admits later, is that she thinks Adam is one of the best-looking boys she has ever seen—“as handsome as a movie star,” as he’s known on campus. (Proof positive the novel is not autobiographical.) Adam comes to dinner, and Margot cooks a navarin. Adam describes it as “probably the best meal I’ve had all year.” “In other words,” Born says, “you’re attracted to Margot’s food.” When Adam replies that he is, Born asks is he is attracted to Margot as well. Adam balks, but Born presses, and finally Adam acknowledges that—hypothetically speaking—he would be hypothetically attracted to Margot:
I can’t answer those questions.
You’re not telling me you’re a virgin, are you?
No, I just don’t want to answer your questins, that’s all.
Am I to understand that if Margot threw herself at you and asked you to fuck her, you wouldn’t be interested? Is that what you’re saying? Poor Margot. You have no idea how much you’ve hurt her feelings.
When he returns from Paris, Born throws Margot out. He was testing her loyalty, he explains to Adam: “And the tramp fell for the bait.” Walking together along the edge of Riverside Park, they are confronted by a “black kid” with a gun. Rather than hand over his wallet, Born produces a switchblade and sinks it into the mugger’s stomach. Adam runs to phone for the police, but by the time he returns, Born and the wounded boy have disappeared. The next day, the papers report that “the body of eighteen-year-old Cedric Williams had been discovered in Riverside Park with over a dozen knife wounds gouged into his chest and stomach.” While he dithers, unsure what to do, Adam receives a note from Born: “Not a word, Walker. Remember: I still have the knife, and I’m not afraid to use it.” By the time he summons the courage to report the French professor to the police, Born has fled the country. Adam knows that he can never forgive himself.
Thus ends Part I. When Part II opens, a different narrator is speaking in the first person—someone who says that he and Walker had “entered Columbia together in 1965, two eighteen-year-old freshmen from New Jersey, and over the next four years we moved in the same circles, read the same books, shared the same ambitions.” They are not the same person, of course. Walker’s friend and classmate is the novelist James Freeman. And as he quickly explains, Part I of the book is a manuscript—a “still-not-finished draft of the first chapter” in Adam Walker’s own book, to be entitled 1967.
In a cover letter, Adam had said that he had hit a wall, and had come to him for professional advice from an old friend. Jim had replied that he’d had a similar problem with an earlier book—“also a memoir (of sorts), which had been divided into two parts.” Like Adam, he had found that he could not go on writing the same way as in Part I. He had realized that his approach had been wrong. “By writing about myself in the first person,” Jim had told Adam, “I had smothered myself and made myself invisible. . . .” Perhaps a shift in grammatical person might create the distance that would allow Adam to finish the book, he had suggested.
Lo and behold, the next chapter of Adam’s book is narrated obligingly in the second person. If I were a different critic—perhaps an old friend of mine, who is also an Orthodox Jew, teaching at Texas A&M and writing for Commentary—I would reveal the contents of Adam’s next chapter. But I won’t. And to save the severely limited from guessing wrongly at my reasons, let me hasten to explain that I do not find the chapter icky, nor am I worried about ruining its surprise. It is just not central to what, as far as I can tell, is going on in Invisible.
After finishing his second chapter, but before he can renew his friendship with the novelist, Walker dies of leukemia. He leaves an envelope with the notes to his third and final chapter. “As for the enclosed pages,” he tells Jim, “do with them what you will.” The novelist turns the notes into complete sentences. “Despite my editorial involvement with the text,” Jim swears, “in the deepest, truest sense of what it means to tell a story, every word . . . was written by Walker himself”—in the third person this time around.
Adam goes to Paris for his junior year abroad. Sees Margot again. Shares her bed again. Born hunts him down. Surprises him at an outdoor café. Claims he did nothing to the boy in the park after stabbing him the first time. Self-defense. Offers to bury the hatchet. A lousy metaphor from someone who has buried a knife in another person’s stomach. A French expression? Offers to introduce Adam to his fiancée’s daughter. Adam refuses.
Upon reflection, Adam decides to exact revenge upon Born, using the fiancée or her daughter as the cut-out:
With the police, with the military, with the government. I can’t prove anything, but I’ve always felt he’s something more than just a university professor.
I don’t know. Secret intelligence, espionage, dirty work of some kind or another.
The novelist in Jim, though, is unsatisfied with such an ending. After a bit of snooping, he finds that a man named Rudolf Born had taught at Columbia during the 1966–67 academic year and that the stab-riddled corpse of eighteen-year-old Cedric Williams had been found in Riverside Park in May 1967. However, Adam’s sister does not believe that her brother’s book is true. She suggests that Jim revamp Adam’s memoir, changing the names of the people and the places, adding or subtracting material as he sees fit, and then publishing the book under the name James Freeman—as a novel. He does as she suggests, “and the reader can therefore be assured that Adam Walker is not Adam Walker.” But why stop there?
And, indeed, after three hundred pages in which the reality of people and places is smothered and made Invisible, it might have been nice to read a thriller. Auster enjoys playing the game of fiction. He belongs to the self-conscious school whose international masters are Borges, Nabokov, and Calvino. Where he has distinguished himself is in writing a direct and forward-moving prose, stripped of adornment, never straining for metaphor or effect, rarely employing a specialized vocabulary, avoiding recursiveness and allusion. A thriller written in such prose would be great fun to read. But that’s not the kind of book Auster has any desire to write. Not that he has anything against fiction that is thrilling. It’s just that Auster prefers to unmask the pretense of the world in which thrillers are set.