(Henry Holt and Company, 2009)
Invisible, the latest novel from Brooklyn’s prolific Paul Auster, is deftly plotted and compulsively readable. Various plot elements are the stuff of soap operas—tragic accidents, dying men harboring terrible secrets, spies, love triangles, betrayal, incest, murder, deceit, and ungovernable lust—but they are so seamlessly woven together they escape feeling overdone or contrived. Invisible is a rare treat for readers: an impressively structured piece of literature as gripping as a lowbrow thriller.
The book’s first section is told from the perspective of Adam Walker, an ambitious young student at Columbia. Adam’s sections of the novel turn out to be sections of a manuscript he sent, decades later, to an old college friend turned successful novelist by the name of James Freeman, who narrates the experience of receiving the manuscript and tracking down several of its principles. The story’s final section is revealed to the reader through the diary of Cecile Juin, a French woman who fell in love with Adam as a girl. These constantly shifting perspectives both obfuscate and illuminate the novel’s central concerns. Invisible is rich in dramatic irony, and reading it is like trying to spot a diamond ring on a running woman: flashes of light beam out at you irregularly in sudden bright spurts, but sometimes you see only a tiny pinprick of light, and sometimes nothing at all.
Auster packs his themes densely, but his novel is crafted to contain them. Literary questions of approach, technique, and how to tell a story explicitly dominate the narrative. In a letter to Walker on the subject of writer’s block, Freeman writes, “My approach had been wrong, I realized. By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible, had made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for.” This is relevant to the novel’s plot, but it’s also a tongue-in-cheek writing lesson. Freeman argues (and presumably Auster believes) that writers must approach their subject on a slant, that straight, traditional writing renders the author, his protagonist, and his subject invisible. A clear picture slides gradually into view only when a writer approaches his subject from multiple angles, as Auster himself so expertly does.
Human questions of responsibility, guilt, innocence, betrayal, aging, death, and running out of time inform the narrative and keep the story itself compelling: “The familiarity of her tone lulled me into a kind of drowsy openness . . . I made a terrible blunder. I told her the truth when I should have lied.” While he asks his readers to grapple with more than a few moral and literary quandaries, Auster does not take on more than he can effectively handle in this novel. Invisible is literarily complex yet admirably spare and economical—its author’s linguistic and emotional restraint and his serious literary concerns save it from overwrought silliness and mere titillation.