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Old Tricks (Finally) Come Together: A Review of Paul Auster’s Invisible

By posted at 6:26 am on August 17, 2010 14

It’s always difficult to play the sheepish part of the converted hater.

The novels of Paul Auster blend into one another. The same tropes emerge time and again, and after a few reads, the inevitable attitude becomes, “Okay, pal, I get it, I get it.” Every time there’s a new Auster novel out, I think it may be different, and I give him a chance, and soon find I’m back in the usual territory: identity puzzles, murky timelines, ominous danger. And I’ve given the guy so many chances.

covercoverThe New York Trilogy was taut and thrilling, and seems to be Auster’s most lauded work to date, but the novellas are so terse in language that I often felt frustrated, wanting more. Granted, this is coming from a reader who champions maximalists like Wallace and Vollmann, but I’ve also liked the spare prose of writers like Coetzee. There’s just something missing for me in the Trilogy, a sort of isolative quality.

I gave it another shot with The Brooklyn Follies, and enjoyed myself more. Of course, it isn’t by any means a perfect book (Walter Kirn, he of Up in the Air fame, called it an “amateurish novel”). I found elements in it that I’d later come to recognize as the tired techniques to which Auster returns in nearly every outing. The narrator is old and busted, and begins the story by telling us, morosely, that he moved to Brooklyn to die. His name is Nathan Glass (get it, glass? Auster can’t refrain from name-dropping his own book, City of Glass, from The New York Trilogy). Glass is compiling anecdotes to write a book about human foolishness. Another predictable subplot involves an illegal caper that fails due to betrayal and greed. All that being said, the book is easy to get through—breezy and kind of pleasant. The second protagonist, Glass’ nephew Tom, is bumbling and likeable, easy to root for. I felt happy after finishing it—not bowled over, but amused.

coverTimbuktu, my third Auster choice, shattered my good graces. The book is silly, even childish. He pulls off the dog-as-narrator feat, sure, but the thing is so short and flat it feels completely unnecessary. “Mr. Bones,” really? And his friend is a homeless guy named Willy G. Christmas? Oy. I couldn’t even feel charmed by what I can only imagine is an animal hero that Auster lovers adore. Instead, I was bored and annoyed. Sections are introduced with hokey phrases like, “Thus began an exemplary friendship between man and boy.” Characters speak like they’re on an episode of Leave it to Beaver. “We’ve just got to keep him, Mama,” a girl begs her mother when Mr. Bones shows up at their door. Sure, Auster is mocking such spoiled American Dream families, but overall, it more often feels like he is trading in clichés, rather than sending them up.

coverIt got worse from there. The book that would kill my interest for good (I thought) was Travels in the Scriptorium. It begins with an unnamed man, in an unnamed location, confused about—shocker, here—his identity (cue up Tony Soprano in his coma: “Who am I? Where am I going?”). Finally we get a name: Mr. Blank. The room is filled with post-its on objects: LAMP. DESK. It’s like a game of Clue. Did Mr. Blank kill his cousin, Mr. Doppelganger, in the ROOM with a RUSTY KNIFE? I finished the book in a few hours’ time and felt cheated. Paul Auster had become, for me, the literary equivalent of Weezer—an artist I respected and had once loved, but could no longer continue supporting and feel good about myself.

coverThat was where I stood when he came out with Invisible. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t accidentally attended a reading of his in Manhattan just days after the book’s release. I had gone there with the roundabout purpose of meeting Rick Moody, who would be introducing him (you can read my full “report” on the experience here), but in so doing I had to stay for the reading.

Auster strolled out confidently and launched into a vivid, unapologetic scene of incest between a biological brother and sister. He stepped on stage and belted it out, reading quickly and almost angrily. It was in second person narration so it felt, creepily, like he was telling you about the time you had sex with your sister. And boy, it was graphic. “As your sister gently put her hand around your rejuvenated penis (sublime transport, inexpressible joy), you forged on with your anatomy lesson,” he read. “When Gwyn came for the first time (rubbing her clitoris with the middle finger of her left hand), the sound of air surging in and out of her nostrils…” Oh my God.

He didn’t even make some self-deprecating joke after finishing, the way you’d expect an author to do (something to lighten the mood, perhaps, like “Well, hope that wasn’t too awkward!”). Instead, he shut the book dramatically and walked off the stage.

Such a move was fitting of the work. Invisible is not funny. And sure, Auster isn’t especially known to be a funny writer, but there is a fair wealth of light humor in Brooklyn Follies (albeit not always adult humor—a page-long fart joke comes to mind). Invisible has no interest in that territory; it’s a very serious story.

It is also a terrific read. It’s different from his others—or at least, it’s a better presentation of those same tricks. Clancy Martin, in his Times review of the book, nails it: “As soon as you finish… you want to read it again.”

Our protagonist is Adam Walker, who is likable in a very ordinary, easy way. He’s a student at Columbia, works in the school library (Auster calls it the “Castle of Yawns”), nurses a wound from an old family tragedy—a typical character. Where the book shines is in its narrative structure. It’s divided into four different sections, with three different narrators. The passing of time is gorgeously handled. The first section, told in the first-person, provides the bulk of the narrative at Columbia in 1967 and covers Adam’s friendship and conflict with Rudolph Born, the story’s cartoonish villain.

In the second section, which begins in 2007, an old friend of Adam’s (an author and clear Auster stand-in) receives a manuscript, which provides the content of the section—it’s Adam’s patchy attempt at a memoir, and it tells the story of Adam’s history with his sister, before he ever met Born. It’s written entirely in the second person.

In the third section, the friend, James, has received the second half of Adam’s manuscript, which now brings us back to 1967 and describes Adam’s time in Paris, in traditional third person narration. During this section Adam spends most of his time with two women. Neither is as important as the book’s central female figure, his sister Gwyn, but one of the two, Celine, is the young daughter of a woman Born is set to marry. Adam befriends the girl, but they have a falling out and he leaves Paris.

In the final section, we are back in the present of 2007, with James as he tracks down Gwyn and then Celine. The section ends, of all things, with a series of entries from Celine’s journal, describing a spontaneous, strange trip she took as a grown woman to visit Born, her would-be father-in-law. She flies to see Born at his remote, Moreau-like island home, and, as they say, hilarity ensues. By hilarity, I mean the Auster variety: surprising dramatic tension that can be darkly funny, but is really quite serious and usually not funny at all.

The different narrators provide fresh voices and insights, and the shifting narrative style (first, second, and third person are all used) keeps us intrigued. Yet the tone of each section is never so radical as to feel jarring.

Everything flows and fits nicely to create a reading experience that is exciting, but also simple. This ain’t Melville, but obviously it isn’t Stieg Larsson, either. Even though Auster has churned out some duds, he has the ability to write simply and intelligently, and he really knows how to move a plot along. He might be the least technically challenging writer of those revered by the high literary establishment, but nonetheless, he has always been perceived as part of it.

Invisible has its flaws. It has its fair share of Austerian (can I coin that phrase right here and now?) language—overt, tactless, groan-inducing. After Adam first meets Rudolph Born at a party, he is hesitant to get to know him more, and reflects to himself, “There is much to be explored in this hesitation, I believe, for it seems to suggest that I already understood… that allowing myself to get involved with him could possibly lead to trouble.” Oh, gee, okay. I suppose if this were a fifth-grade exercise the teacher would circle that and use it to define foreshadowing.

Above all else, the “bad guy” at the center of its plot, Born, is something of a joke. He spouts off cheesy idioms like a movie character (“your ass will be so cooked,” he threatens at one point, and at another, warns, “not a word, young Walker, not a word”). Recently, a nice piece on The Millions that discussed the influence of Shakespeare’s Iago on modern fiction did not mention Born, which seemed to me a surprising omission at first. But in fact, it’s only natural that Born wouldn’t come to mind in a discussion that includes characters like Barbara from Notes on a Scandal or American Psycho’s Pat Bateman. Rudolph Born just isn’t the cool, calculating emotional menace that other great villains have been.

But poor dialogue and a one-dimensional “bad guy” do nothing to ruin the novel. No one reads Auster to find beautiful prose, and Born’s role as a thorn in Adam’s side, though a bit contrived, is necessary. The book’s final scene castrates his power, anyway.

Born isn’t even the biggest obstacle to Adam’s happiness. That title belongs to Gwyn. It is their volatile sibling relationship that makes Invisible a compelling story, and leaves its troubling questions still lingering after you’ve put the book down.

coverAuster’s next novel, already up on Amazon for all to see, is called Sunset Park­; it’s another New York story. According to a Booklist plot synopsis: “four flat-broke twentysomething searchers end up squatting in a funky abandoned house in Sunset Park.” Characters include such stock types as a guitarist, a struggling artist, and a grad student, as well as a fugitive “poisoned by guilt over his stepbrother’s death.” Another character plagued by a tragic event in his past? Uh-oh.

This one could go either way; it may be standard genre fare, or perhaps it’s something new and exciting. After Invisible, I’m at least willing to give it a shot. I guess I’m back on the Paul Auster bandwagon, for now.





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14 Responses to “Old Tricks (Finally) Come Together: A Review of Paul Auster’s Invisible”

  1. AJP
    at 7:55 am on August 17, 2010

    Auster does fall for the same tropes again and again. My Auster phase was informed by THE NEW YORK TRILOGY, but I quickly found that there is a great depth, and dare I say, humanity in BOOK OF ILLUSIONS, MR. VERTIGO, and his memiors.

    I am glad to hear that INVISBLE is worth the read.

  2. Lydia Kiesling
    at 8:09 am on August 17, 2010

    I am with you on the fiction of Auster’s that I have read, but I love his autobiographical writing (Invention of Solitude, etc.). The compilation Collected Prose is wonderful.

  3. Christopher Kelly
    at 9:49 am on August 17, 2010

    Invisible is his best book, for all the reasons you nicely cited, but you might want to lower you hopes for Sunset Park. It goes the other way.

  4. Tom
    at 10:02 am on August 17, 2010

    I agree on the Timbuktu-novel. It felt like reading a Disney movie.

  5. David
    at 10:05 am on August 17, 2010

    I’m sure it was James Wood but not sure where or when I read it, but he wrote a piece within the last year on Auster. I thought the fault was mine that Auster tired me out, I felt I was slogging through the pages. When I read the Wood article, it hit home. Decades ago I began with Auster’s first, In the Country of Last Things, and loved it. But that was then and on rereading, sort of expecting to be wowed again, it was only so-so. Loved The Music of Chance but had Mandy Patinkin in my head as he played the lead in the movie. Loved Invention of Solitude and Oracle Night (I have a thing for footnotes). And that’s it. And I’ve given every one a try, probably finished half. Wasn’t there a piece here recently about writers tossing things up in the air, trying something else?

  6. Edward Champion
    at 10:49 am on August 17, 2010

    There is a very typical reviewing approach to Paul Auster, which this review comes close to fulfilling. The argument is stated as follows:

    Oh, I used to love Auster. But now he’s a hack. Yet I just picked up [insert latest title] and he’s back in my good graces. Where has this Auster been? Why is he producing such doggerel?

    He’s been there all along. The upshot is that Auster doesn’t really change his novelistic template too much. He’s similar to an accomplished pianist who riffs on a few themes, often messing with the reader’s head with those “simple” sentences and the intertextuality (both of which are quite funny to me, but then I also read a lot of fun trash). Personally, I find nothing wrong with that. The reasons that any of us first read Auster are probably similar to the reasons we approach him in this late “washed up” mode. I’ve heard literary folks declare Auster’s last few books masterpieces or wretched.

    Much of this depends upon whether they are willing to cut the man some slack or not. Or maybe there have always been a few Auster books that any one person doesn’t care for. (For my own part, I find the last two installments of the NEW YORK TRILOGY lacking. But I have enjoyed all of Auster’s other books, including the latest one, SUNSET PARK, which features some amusing PEN America promotion within its narrative, along with what appears to be a deliberately muddled effort at balancing character perspectives.)

    I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the Auster backlash originates with his inclusion into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006. I’m just wondering why the “I get it” feeling has to be so bad. Can’t we just accept Auster for being Auster? It’s as pointless as castigating P.G. Wodehouse for using the same tropes over numerous novels. Reading doesn’t always have to be about recognizing “facile” themes. Novels are more than that.

  7. jesusangelgarcia
    at 11:18 am on August 17, 2010

    Yeah, I agree w/ Mr. Roberts. I thought Auster was done a while back. His more recent work that I’d read was riddled w/ cliched language and rip-offs of his past efforts. In a word: uninspired. I mean, he’s been cranking out a book every year or two for some time. What does one expect? Great novels take time to gestate. (Mr. Champion: if the typical review goes like this, there’s probably a reason.) But yes, I’m with Roberts here: I have no problem saying that “Invisible” reminded me why I liked Auster in the first place: convincing multiple voices, beautifully interwoven narratives, multilayered themes with meat on the bone. I loved the incest — OK, not the “incest,” per se, but it’s depiction, which felt strangely natural — and the heartbreak and the regret. Vivid portraits. I look forward to this next book.

  8. Glenn
    at 11:58 am on August 17, 2010

    Paul Auster is right up at the top of a list of my favorite fiction writers, although I think his recent books are his weakest. a reviewer who likes Vollmann and Wallace would obviously not find Auster his cup of tea. Thanks for letting me know he has a new book coming out.

    Books I’ve enjoyed recently: Tom Rachman’s Imperfectionists, a very good first novel much like Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, a fantastic first novel. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin was also very good as was Jonathan Dee’s new book.

  9. bert hirsch
    at 12:00 pm on August 17, 2010

    i agree that Auster’s work has been inconsistent. NY Trilogy, Book of Illusions and the interesting memoir, Hand to Mouth, stand out as his best works and I was terribly dissappointed with Oracle Night finding the characters to be stereotypical and uninspiring. I am glad to hear that with Invisble he is back on track.

  10. brian
    at 5:26 pm on August 17, 2010

    I’ll second AJP’s comment. Auster’s memoir work is by far stronger than his fiction. With that work he has made moving entry into what it means to be human, routing around in consciousness’s oddest quirks. Not nearly Kierkegaard, nor nearly Dostoevsky, but yet a tow on the same line. And from our generation. I enjoy his novels. Book of Illusions and Oracle Night were great, but the others were less successful attempts at similar themes. I’d even say Invisible is a lesser work. A lot of his fiction feels pulpy to me, as if he’s not so much interested in writing challenging fiction, but more so in creating a mass market paperback genre out of it (and yet publishing the hardback anyway). If I were his editor, I’d suggest focusing on memoir work for the present and giving the next novel five to ten years to mature.

  11. ian
    at 5:46 pm on August 17, 2010

    “It’s as pointless as castigating P.G. Wodehouse for using the same tropes over numerous novels.”
    Whoa – don’t even think about going there with a PG Wodehouse comparison. He wrote some of the smoothest, funniest English prose of the 20th Century; Paul Auster, I think we can safely agree, did not.

    I’ve only read the New York Trilogy which I confess i found quite boring.

  12. M. M. Rood
    at 8:06 pm on August 17, 2010
  13. Links: The Interrogative Mood | Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes
    at 7:11 am on August 19, 2010

    [...] Paul Auster‘s Invisible turned one Auster-hater around. (My own experience was somewhat similar, though Man in the Dark is the book that firmly pushed me [...]

  14. some reviews « BRANDON STRANGE
    at 9:38 pm on September 7, 2010

    [...] I’ve had a friend recommend his latest, Invisible, however, and after reading a few things about it I’m definitely going to give it a go here in the next few [...]

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