After a run of books with increasingly decrepit protagonists, Paul Auster's 13th novel returns to a highly recognisable "young Auster" cipher and some metafictional gamesmanship.
Adam Walker is a literature student at Columbia with French fluent enough to translate medieval Provençal verse. An aspiring poet, Walker is strapped for cash but avoiding his affluent parents; despite a successful New Jersey business, his family has been dysfunctional since the accidental death in childhood of Adam's younger brother. It's 1967, and his college ambition, as much as anything in this impoverished period of life, is to beat the draft.
This latter hope is one Walker lamely admits to Rudolf Born, a visiting tutor whose partner, Margot, latches on to Walker's retiring presence at a party. Margot is plain, silent, intense; Born is fiery, confident and disconcerting and, with their acquaintance scarcely defrosted, offers Walker the enormous sum of $25,000 to set up a literary magazine.
This typical piece of Austerish serendipity leads swiftly to prickly exchanges, political harangues, seduction and the ethical hangover of betrayal before, one evening, Born and Walker take a stroll, only to be mugged. Born reacts with a blade to the assailant's stomach. Walker runs for help but returns to find nothing: the mugger's body is found in a nearby park with a dozen wounds and, a week later, Born, after a threatening missive to an anguished, dithering Walker, flees to France.
This sudden drama closes the first section of Invisible, whose four parts each culminate in some form of flight following a shocking or claustrophobic encounter. This goads the pace of a plot otherwise freighted with cumbersome literary baggage. Part two, for example, reveals this breathless opening adventure to be the first instalment of a confession that the 60 year-old Walker, dying of leukaemia, is writing to expunge his guilt over failing to have Born arrested for murder back in 1967. The remainder of Invisible is made up from Walker's unfinished manuscripts and notes pieced together by an old Columbia colleague and successful novelist.
Structurally, Invisible has plenty of incident: affairs, incest, a sojourn in Paris trying to take revenge against Born. Thematically, however, it is more diffuse. Are Walker's memories reliable? Was Born guilty? Both questions intrigue; both are left hanging. By dressing up Walker as his own younger self, Auster reinforces the sense that Invisible is another novel of storytelling and interpretation rather than narrative entertainment. Layering his plot with one fictional author curating another's prose creates distance but also confusion. "By writing about myself in the first person," Walker's novelist colleague advises him, "I had made myself invisible, had made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for." Walker takes this advice, turning to second- (rather wearying) and third-person narratives, but quite what Auster is seeking to eclipse or reveal remains unclear: not catharsis for Walker, nor natural justice for Born; not (so far as I can tell) a reappraisal of Auster's salad years. Nor does any of this yield satisfaction for the reader.
Auster has always been highly present in his fictions, stamping them with his fluent, idiosyncratic style, his characters' reduced existences and psychological uncertainties. Where Invisible falls down is that its narrative strands are not sufficiently developed to engage, but the deliberately congested authorship, which seems the novel's greater emphasis, remains self-referential and unrewarding.