Sometimes a book leaves me puzzled. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes that’s bad. Sometimes it’s both. Paul Auster’s latest novel, Invisible, falls in the latter category.
Before explaining why, the basic background of the story is necessary. Invisible is the memoir, of sorts, of Adam Walker’s life in 1967 as an undergrad at Columbia University. Told during periods ranging from then until 2007 by different narrators, the spring, summer and fall of that year are recounted in four interconnected chapters. Each season ultimately involves some actual or claimed violation of criminal or moral standards, events that forever alter and mark not only Walker’s life but several others. All stem from the then 22-year-old Walker, who wants to be a poet, meeting a visiting professor of international politics at Columbia and the professor’s unusual but attractive girlfriend at a party.
The “bad” puzzles for me are unquestionably matters of personal preference. Auster is among those authors who engage in the post-modern tendency to leave it for the reader to determine what the story ultimately is or means. While I don’t need to be led by the hand or have a postscript explain a work to me, I often tend to prefer certainty over uncertainty. Yet even though we believe certain historical facts when we finish Invisible it is still not quite clear exactly what is true and what isn’t. In that way it is perhaps a contemplation of the meaning of truth or the sometimes thin line between it and fantasy. Perhaps Auster simply asks us to ponder how a chance meeting can set in motion a series of events that alter any number of lives forever. I’m not quite sure. Plainly, though, whether that is, in fact, “bad,” rests with each individual reader.
The novel, Auster’s fifteenth, also focuses somewhat significantly on sex or, as the book jacket puts it, “unbridled sexual hunger.” You can’t say it’s immaterial to the story and, in fact, might also be viewed as reflecting the sexual revolution of the time. I am far from prudish and don’t find the usage offensive. Still, Invisible is just one of a number of novels that leave me wondering why sex is such a recurring motif. Perhaps it is as simple as literature dealing with the fundamental emotions and motivations of human life. Again, though, it is this overall tendency, not just the usage in Invisible, that leaves me a bit puzzled.
The “good” puzzle pieces far offset the “bad” pieces. There is the way Auster structures the story. Not only do we have three narrators, the story is told in different voices — first person, second person and third person. Explaining just how and why Auster creates this approach might undercut some of its effectiveness and power. Suffice it to say that because the events are viewed at different times and through different prisms there comes a point, particularly with one plot line, where we directly encounter the question of what is truth.
In addition to the structure, there is Auster’s always impressive ability to tell a story. Invisible draws you in quickly and you’re the one who doesn’t really want to let go. Although you could arguably call this a type of thriller, Auster doesn’t generate page-turning by simply leaving the reader hanging at the end of each chapter. He does something far more difficult and rare. You keep turning pages because you’ve become absorbed in the story and the characters. When you get right down to it, isn’t that what anyone really wants from a novel?
Maybe I’m too antediluvian. Or perhaps Invisible or its lack of definitive resolution will puzzle you also. It’s worth the time to find out.
For the sad fact remains: there is far more poetry in the world than justice.
Paul Auster, Invisible