by Paul Auster
Reviewed by Vincent Rossmeier
Behind any artist's urge to create is an egotistical impulse -- a desire to be remembered, to see one's works immortalized. Writers attempt to defy death by achieving eternal life on the page and in the imaginations of readers. Such hopes are ultimately illusory: obviously, a page or a book or a computer file may outlast their creators, but nothing has the stamina to outlast time. Yet few writers are either willing or courageous enough to confront the fact that literary immortality is essentially impossible.
Paul Auster is an exception. In works like The New York Trilogy, In the Country of Last Things, and perhaps most especially, The Book of Illusions, Auster has proven himself to be the English language's foremost explorer of artistic oblivion. Texts disappear, architecture crumbles, films are burned before anyone can view them. One might extrapolate that Auster writes less to be remembered by posterity than to remind us of the beautiful impermanence of life. And while he uses some of the meta-textual, postmodern techniques that can make the writings of novelists like Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers seem gimmicky or overly self-conscious, Auster seldom sacrifices character, plot, or emotion for the sake of literary flashiness.
In his new novel, Invisible, as was the case with The Book of Illusions, the main character is not a person, but the narrative itself. In the novel's first section, we are immediately immersed in Adam Walker's memoir, which opens during his time as a student and fledgling poet at Columbia University. Because he can quote obscure writers and discuss the intricacies of literary history, it would be easy to classify Adam as the stereotypical navel-gazing undergrad who resides in books rather than the world beyond the page. Yet, as his story continues, Adam and his life prove to be anything but cliche.
The plot centers on Adam's meeting with two enigmatic figures at a party: a combustible man named Rudolf Born and his indecipherable companion, a woman named Margot. The chance encounter drastically alters the course of Adam's life. Rudolf and Margot both instantly take to Adam's brooding persona and the three become entangled in a peculiar relationship. Rudolf, officially a professor at Columbia but perhaps a spy for one or more governments, acts like Nietzsche's Zarathustra incarnate, spouting comments such as, "Never underestimate the importance of war. War is the purest, most vivid expression of the human soul" -- sentiments that Adam, who dreads being drafted for the Vietnam War, adamantly opposes. Yet Rudolf offers to give Adam the financial backing to start his very own literary magazine. The magazine never comes to fruition due to the book's pivotal act: Adam witnesses Rudolf put his words into practice and commit a bloody and deadly crime. Despite being appalled by Rudolf's brutality, Adam does not report the crime to the police for a few days. By that time, Rudolf has escaped to Europe.
The crime haunts Adam's conscience for decades, but after being diagnosed with a terminal disease, he turns to the written word for salvation. He begins his memoir and sends the incomplete manuscript to a former college friend named Jim. It is at this point that Invisible becomes a distinctly Austeresque novel: Jim, much like Auster himself, is a celebrated writer, and when he sets out to publish Adam's account, he alerts us that he has changed all the names in the book. Thus life and fiction become increasingly difficult to separate. In the same way that Jim struggles to ascertain the veracity of Adam's account, we have to decide how much we trust Jim's (and by extension, Auster's) retelling of Adam's story.
Auster doesn't engage in such complications merely to mess with our heads. Rather, he attempts to illuminate the way all of us construct myths about our own lives and then make sense of life through these stories. There is no single truth, no single interpretation of events. The crime in Invisible means something different to each of its characters. The truth is a distillation of both fact and fiction, or as Rudolf says near the end of the novel, "But in order to tell the truth, we'll have to fictionalize it." What we've been reading is a truthful lie.
The fungible nature of reality in Invisible thus plays into one of the recurrent themes in Auster's other novels. We want to set down life into words and record history as it occurred, and by doing so make our existences less fleeting. But in the end, words are organisms, as impermanent and malleable as the rendition of truth they convey. They can't grant us eternal life. Adam tries to exist after his death through his memoir, but his efforts fail. In actuality, he has become invisible, hidden by Jim's edits.
As usual, Auster writes in a hypnotically simple style, belying the complexity of his ideas. Invisible contends with the most fundamental question of artistic creation -- why bother? Why write when we know everything we put down on the page will eventually fade away or be expunged? That Auster is still writing novels as insightful and moving as this one may be the best answer we can hope to have.