I first came across the work of Paul Auster while still in college. For one of my literature classes we had to read the novella City of Glass, being Auster’s debut – not counting the more straightforward though well worth reading detective novel Squeeze Play (currently out of print but we may still may be able to get it for you!), which he published under the pseudonym of Paul Benjamin – and the first part of his fantastic New York Trilogy. It did not take more than a few pages for me to be completely absorbed by the wonderfully strange world that Auster had created, and I devoured the rest of the New York Trilogy as soon as I could, ultimately even using it as one of three novels to write my thesis on.
But enthusiastic as I was regarding this title, I found other novels by Auster to pale in comparison, seemingly backtracking topics that had already been covered better with his debut. Not that these other works were bad by any means, but more because I felt that his musings on topics like coincidence, identity and language—and the way these interact—had been covered in such an absolute and definitive way—which, considering his stress on subjectivity, is fairly ironic—to render everything that followed it almost redundant by default. The price you pay for debuting with a classic, I suppose.
But now, over twenty years later, there is Invisible, with which Auster proves to be every bit as relevant as he was with his debut. Divided into four parts, and narrated by no less than three different voices, the novel opens in New York City in the spring of 1967 and introduces us to Adam Walker, a twenty-year-old student and aspiring poet at Columbia University. At an otherwise uneventful party we find Walker being introduced to two Frenchmen, Rudolf Born and his partner Margot, a seemingly innocent encounter that will ultimately alter the rest of his life.
Born turns out to be a visiting professor with a one-year appointment at Columbia, a self-confessed teacher of Disaster, but before we actually get to know him we are introduced to his namesake on the first page of the book, where Walker reminisces, “I had already met his namesake in Dante’s hell, a dead man shuffling through […] the Inferno. Bertran de Born, the twelfth-century Provencal poet, carrying his severed head by the hair as it sways back and forth like a lantern…”—an ill omen if ever there was one. And sure enough, it does not take long before we find out that there is more to Born than meets the eye, and that, aside from his name, he also shares a fondness for violence with the poet, bringing the first part of the book to a climactic end.
In part two of Invisible we find out that the first part we have just read is actually the first part of a three-piece manuscript that was written by Walker himself, a book within a book, so to speak. This manuscript, tentatively titled 1967, and divided into three parts entitled Spring, Summer, and Fall, serves as a memoir of this life-changing period in Walker’s life. Furthermore we find out that only one copy of this manuscript exist, which Walker handed over to an old friend from college by the name of James Freeman. Freeman now reveals himself to be both narrator of Invisible and editor of 1967, thereby adding a second narrative voice to the novel as well as coloring the first.
Whereas Spring was narrated in first person past tense, with Summer, Walker—following Freeman’s advice—opts for a different voice and continues his account in second person present tense, which he does in order to distance himself from the controversial subject matter described in that particular part. (Incest, anyone?) Or as Freeman puts it himself in a letter to Walker explaining his own authorial problems, “by writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible…I needed to separate myself from myself, to step back and carve out some space between myself and my subject (which was myself)…” thereby also shedding a light on the title of Invisible itself.
This separation of author from subject is highly ironic, of course, especially considering the fact that Walker is strongly modeled after his creator; like Auster, Walker lives in New York, studies at Columbia, writes poetry, translates French literature, and even moves to Paris, while furthermore walking—Walker—was an integral element of City of Glass. But whereas with other authors this element of thinly veiled autobiography might hint at a lack of experience or creativity, with Auster it serves as a philosophical tool with which to further diminish the boundaries between author and subject, between creator and created, and thus, ultimately, between real and invented, between fiction and fact.
Although much more can be said about all the literary references and authorial games Auster once again plays with much finesse in this novel, much of the fun of reading Auster lies in encountering these elements and surprises yourself. Suffice it to say that all the qualities that made the New York Trilogy so fantastic—its being literary without being overtly heavy, its being philosophical without being pretentious, but most of all its being a thoroughly grasping read that made you feel as well as think—apply to Invisible as well, and I can highly recommend this book for both fans and newcomers alike.