MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Invisible

by Paul Auster

Invisible by Paul Auster X
Invisible by Paul Auster
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2009, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2010, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading
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BookBrowse Review

A new novel from the inimitable Paul Auster, told by three different narrators

When you pick up a Paul Auster novel, a spell descends over you. As if you are in a funhouse car, you are hooked onto the tracks of the story and pulled into its depths. Invisible begins, "I shook his hand for the first time in the spring of 1967." You learn many things from that sentence. The story will be told in an intimate, first-person address, as if the narrator is leaning over a dinner table toward you. The story happened in the past, so what you will hear is the narrator's reflection on those long-ago events. And it will be the story of an encounter with an extraordinary man. In just one sentence, Auster has created incredible suspense. It is the spell of a master storyteller.

The narrator is Adam Walker, a bookish but otherwise undistinguished college student, and the hand he shakes belongs to Rudolf Born, an older Parisian man who singles Walker out and pulls him into his sophisticated, almost debauched world. Born tells Walker, "You are a special case, Adam, and what makes you special is that you have no idea of the effect you have on other people." Born values Walker's unself-consciousness, yet that is exactly what he destroys in the course of the novel. Events transpire, but I'm not going to spoil a particle of the suspense that makes Auster so valuable a writer by telling you anything about the plot. Let's just say that the first part of the book comes to a climactic end.

When you turn the page to start the second part you realize that you're in the hands of another narrator. "Back in the dark ages of our youth," he begins, "Walker and I had been friends." This section is narrated by a man named Jim Freeman, and it turns out that what you have just finished reading is the first part of Walker's memoir, which he has mailed to his old college friend after forty years have elapsed. This is a classic Auster technique. He loves stories within stories, especially ones that circulate within his novels as manuscripts handed between people. The rest of Invisible operates on a dual track of suspense: what happens to Walker after the spring of 1967, as well as the effect that reading about those events has on various other protagonists within Auster's story. Above and beyond the plot itself, Invisible is about the act of reading, and what an encounter with someone else's dramatic story can do to your own worldview.

This abiding love for frame narratives (see sidebar) places Auster in the company of metafiction novelists like Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, or Italo Calvino, yet he is not a flashy, fancy, or difficult writer. Invisible sounds exactly like someone talking to you about something astonishing that happened to him when he was young. It is impossible not to listen.

The cost of this narrative technique is high. Auster chooses plain speech over poetic, inventive language, plot over setting or description, and retrospective narration over present-tense immediacy. Because of these choices, the dramatic events of Invisible don't really get under your skin. You don't feel what the characters feel; you simply listen as they tell you how they once felt. The biggest cost, though, is to the characters themselves. Adam Walker never seems more than a cipher through which Auster conveys his plot. Anyone who expects the kind of interiority that authors like Jhumpa Lahiri or Elizabeth Strout give to their characters will be sorely disappointed.

But this, I think, is almost entirely Auster's point. Or at least I've come to think that after spending quite a bit of time pondering his choice of title. It isn't obvious from the story what he means by the word "invisible," so I've temporarily concluded that he is referring to Walker's unself-consciousness, his invisibility to himself, which Born violently and irrevocably ruptures, plunging him into a cynical and damaged world. Auster shows us a way back toward this edenic self-absorption: by reading, by immersing ourselves in a story, by losing our sense of our own contours, by allowing ourselves to become hollowed out in the service of the deep empathy that is reading a novel.

Reviewed by Amy Reading

This review was originally published in November 2009, and has been updated for the June 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

Frame Narration and Ekphrasis

Paul Auster frequently employs two particular literary techniques which, when combined, turn his novels into multi-layered stories with internal echoes and reverberations.

The first is a frame narrative, in which the main plot is a story, usually in the form of a manuscript, which is discovered and introduced by someone else. This device paradoxically helps establish the reality of Auster's world at the same time that it highlights the book's flagrant fictionality as mere words on a page. On the one hand, the embedded story's status as a text prevents the reader from getting fully immersed in it. On the other hand, the context that is built around the embedded story becomes a kind of self-referential world. It is the resonance between the textual layers that begins to feel real to Auster's readers. In Invisible, we get to experience Jim Freeman's perception of Adam Walker, and this invests Walker with a flesh-and-blood dimensionality that a straightforward autobiography has a hard time conveying.

The second technique is ekphrasis*, which is when a work of art depicts an artwork from another genre, such as a painting of a sculpture. In literature, it refers to an extended description of a visual object, and perhaps the most famous example is John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." For Auster, the most common object of his ekphrasic reveries is cinema, and he frequently pauses the forward thrust of his novels in order to linger on a film frame by frame, describing its plot but also its camera angles and changes in mood. It pays to sit up straight and pay extra attention to a book at such moments, because authors use ekphrasis to clue readers in to larger themes. What he chooses to describe, how he describes it, what role the object plays in the larger story - these are highly selected and crafted details that reveal the author's literary values. Thus a film that Adam Walker sees in which a dead woman comes back to life has meaning in Invisible not only because of how emotionally moved Walker is by the film's climax, but also because the film's aesthetic style tells us something crucial about Auster's own.

*from the Greek verb ekphrazein, to recount or describe.

Reviewed by Amy Reading

This review was originally published in November 2009, and has been updated for the June 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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