In the prolific years since The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster’s writing has tightened to such a perfect pitch it’s become almost inaudible to human ears. His issues — identity, language, truth or reality — weave into such a seamless harmony, it must be what one hand clapping sounds like. He’s even added, to this perfect mix, a hint of global awareness. It’s beautiful mind candy, but what does it all amount to?
The first narrator in Invisible, Auster’s fifteenth novel, is Adam Walker. He is aging, sick, dying. He is sharing his life story, one with mundane realities as well as incest and murder. While he seems to be a reliable narrator, the larger-than-life characters he encounters strain belief. The conundrum here is: what is real? Of course reading a novel requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but in the case of Invisible, what is the reader supposed to believe? Did Adam have a wild affair with his sister? Do we care? Is Auster just a big tease? In day-to-day reality, we sometimes hear stories that are “so crazy they must be real”. We look the storyteller in the eye and toss the dice, trusting them or not. Invisible is like a late night phone call from an old acquaintance now halfway around the world. You don’t know what to make of it while you’re on the line, and when you wake up in the morning, the conversation seems like a dream.
The second narrator, presumably the “compiler” of these tales, is an old Columbia University acquaintance of Walker’s. He shares the reader’s confusion over Walker’s paradoxical existence: nice guy, gets caught up with a charismatic jerk, sleeps with his hot girlfriend, is traumatized by a murder that he does nothing to prevent, and winds up in bed with his sister.
It’s hard to top Donna Tartt’s treatment of incest in A Secret History, but in Invisible Auster tries. Because Walker and his sister are distant from their parents, it’s an easier leap to believe they could develop a relationship that’s a little too intimate. But did the incest never happen, as his sister insists? As Walker says, we can only know what a person chooses to show us. What we see in a house of mirrors is a tiny microcosm of the real world, but it can feel like a universe.
The varied narrative voices used by, say, Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley are constructed to give their readers a fuller picture. Auster uses his multiple narrative voices (and interconnected stories) to both illuminate and unsettle the reader. After all, he’s had practice in the house of mirrors school of narration; it’s a style that gives the reader a sense of intimacy that quickly shifts to a slightly different angle then shifts again, keeping us at arms length.
The women in Invisible are deftly drawn and more authentic than the men (aside from the fact that all of them are fluent in French). Auster is not usually known for his steamy sex scenes, but he gets graphic here. To his credit, the sex is realistic and interesting, particularly with Parisian Margot, who believes that a life without sexuality is not worth living. But like a woman’s beauty, Margot fades — in her case, from the pages of the book.
The third and final narrator of the book is Cecile, a woman Walker starts out manipulating but ends up befriending. She’s one of Auster’s more haunting characters because there’s something familiar about her. Her mother Helene is given the classic Paul Auster comment that seems to permeate the novel: “Isn’t it intriguing that thought cannot exist without language, and since language is a function of the brain, we would have to say that language — the ability to experience the world through symbols — is in some sense a physical property of human beings, which proves that the old mind-body duality is so much nonsense, doesn’t it?” But would language exist if we had no one to talk to? Language, like sex, is a connection — without it, we become invisible.
Ironically, the most believable male character is the confusing Adam Walker. In the end, we decide he is telling some version of his truth, and we just have to take it for what it is. Maybe he didn’t actually sleep with his sister — but on some level, it felt as if he did. And if something feels that real, isn’t it — emotionally or psychologically — in a sense real? On the other hand, maybe his sister is lying and they did carry on a brief, torrid affair. Who could blame her for lying about one of our most sacred taboos?
Questions and believability aside, Auster captures an uncanny synchronicity that most of us recognize from our own lives. We’ve all known a Margot or a Rudolf Born, people who seem larger than life, or at least larger than our understanding of life. Auster’s novels leave readers pondering: is the life we believe we lived more real than reality? Is the burden of misplaced guilt as heavy to carry as real guilt? (And why don’t the truly guilty seem to suffer?)
So if our stories are lies, does that make us invisible? If no one really knows us, were we ever really here? What is the sound of one hand clapping? Are we hearing it now?