There’s a recurring theme with the books I’ve been reading lately – they’re the only ones written in English in Kinokuniya that sound more interesting than Twilight or the hundreds of crappy, pulp airport fiction that lines the shelves. And while I’ve read some of those (not Twilight – I promise), there’s not a lot in the way of meaty stuff. So when I saw Paul Auster’s new novel, I picked it up, since I’ve been meaning to give him a try for ages.
Adam Walker, a student at Colombia University, meets an intriguing French professor at a party one night. The two discuss literature, and Adam’s desire to start a literary magazine so sparks Rudolf Born’s imagination, he offers to bankroll the whole thing. But as the plans advance, Adam begins to discover that Rudolf is not necessarily the calm, professor-type he pretends to be. One night, something happens that will change their relationship, and Adam’s entire life.
I like the fact that Adam meets Rudolf at every turn. He’s such a delicious villain, straight out of a 60s Bond film. He also echoes that classic children’s literature trope, where no matter how much the young protagonist complains to everyone else, somehow, there he is. And thanks to him, there is also an interesting moral question at the centre of this novel. Is killing someone in self-defence forgivable? And if so, shouldn’t you tell someone? Obviously, it’s the first part of this conundrum that poses the greatest moral dilemma, but the second half gives this novel oomph, and drives Adam and Rudolf’s relationship through the years. Despite this, it does seem to take a backseat to the slightly moustache-twirling antics Rudolph tends to get up to, and the other bits of the narrative structure that become more important.
For the most part, I like unreliable narrators. If done right, particularly as a final twist, having an unreliable narrator is a great way to have a novel resonate in the readers’ minds well after the reading experience is over. What happens here is even more of a mind-fuck, if you’ll excuse the expression. Adam Walker from the first section, set in 1967, is later revealed to be a friend of the narrator, a famous author. It is quickly established that the opening sequence is actually the recollections of Adam as an old man, dying of some terrible disease. In his final days, he wanted to, as some kind of catharsis, reveal the whole truth of his life, and did so in manuscript form to his old friend.
Of course, it is later revealed that James, the narrator, has changed the names in the manuscript, for fear of libel. What makes this even more confusing is that when James contacts Adam’s sister, Gwen, who plays a rather large part in the manuscript, she claims the whole story is made up. Who are we to believe, then? A dying old man, wanting to make peace with the world before he dies? James, an author who has admitted to changing certain things in the manuscript to protect people? Or perhaps Gwen, who vehemently denies any of the activities outlined in the manuscript? Doing some background reading, it seems that Auster likes to put echoes of himself into his novels, and from the beginning of Invisible, this is quite obvious. Adam, the literary student of the 1960s is a pretty clear author identification figure, but once James, the famous author, is introduced into the story, things become a bit more complicated.
In the end, we are left with bits and pieces of clues. The final sequence is truly bizarre, and seems completely out of place tonally with the rest of the novel, dealing, as it does, with an overweight middle-aged woman in the tropics. (There is a link, I promise, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers). It goes some way to providing answers, but seems like an odd place to finish.
The problem with Invisible is that it’s too short and slight to make any kind of lasting impression. The plot keeps things moving, and it’s a diverting read, but in the end, it’s not something that’s going to stay with you forever. Perhaps this is the problem with novels concerned about the way a story is told – while this is thought provoking while you are reading, once the point is made, there’s not much more to go on.