There is no New Yorker quite like Paul Auster. The city is Auster’s literary terrain; the stage with 176 zip codes where he performs fast-paced crime scenes, uncovers skin-tingling discoveries, and plays out thrilling games and riddles. Auster’s fifteenth novel reads as a metropolis of vast possibilities where literary dreams are fabricated and sordid, sexual fantasies are explored beyond their moral fringes. As its title promises, Auster’s novel fondles the possibility of invisibility. What happens when we make invisible the margins of love, sex and obsession? How far can we cross their borders? And, if we do, are our actions justified? Auster’s finely wrought experiment, executed across four sections, penetrates these grey “invisible” areas; those spaces on the edges of convention few of us dare to invade, where anything is possible: love affairs, murder – even incest.
A boy is stabbed in Riverside Park, New York City, 1967. The world of Adam Walker – wannabe poet, avid admirer of Dante and keen Columbia undergrad – is shaken forever as he witnesses this life-altering crime. In the aftermath of this cataclysmic moment, by which all others in the novel are defined (it is the novel’s own raison d’être), Walker’s life takes a darker turn as he finds himself burning in his own Inferno. In his Inferno, Walker becomes involved – apparently inadvertently – in three very unconventional relationships: the first relationship is intertextual; the second, intersexual; and the third, incestual. To say the book is self-involved is an understatement. The first of the three frankly bizarre relationships Walker gets mixed up in is with the aptly-named Rudolf Born, modelled on Bertran de Born, the twelfth-century Provençal poet and the ‘wretched creature who lost his head’ in Dante’s Inferno. Born (the man, not the Dante dude) is a visiting professor from Paris, a member of the secret service and possibly a murderer. Doubling up as Walker’s warped surrogate father and arch nemesis, Born lures the impressionable twenty-year-old into one of his many schemes, reeling him in with a business proposal – easy bait considering Walker is a soon-to-be graduate. Soon enough, Walker finds himself making polite chat over a “business” dinner with sensual, subdued Margot, Born’s girlfriend and second cousin. Weird. Distracted by Margot’s beauty and her demure older woman charm, Walker inevitably begins an affair with Born’s cousin-girlfriend. While Walker’s attachment to Margot is intensely erotic and obsessive, almost pornographic, he has the most intimate, intriguing and emotional connection with his sister, Gwyn. Weirder. Confusing cousin/sibling relations that make for uncomfortable and just plain gross reading moments aside, you simply cannot disregard the economy with which Auster handles such a dense and complex, polyphonous story and the meticulous attention to detail he invests in both the plotline and his characters. You can actually read Auster pulling himself up at every possible turn in his writing, almost vacuum-packing the text so you can’t find a hole in it; making what could have been a shady mystery tale, a compelling, inquisitive and forceful fiction. Even his sketchier characters like Born, a mystery himself, are crafted with the finesse and vigorous intricacy of a careful sculptor. Auster’s characters are literary avatars, extracted from fiction and hurled into stories in which they should not belong, so that it should not work. But they do – and it does.
Overall, though, it’s the novel’s self-involved nature – as one that is so obsessed with its insides – that makes Invisible such an inviting read. Like walking through New York’s self-contained streets, avenues and blocks, you will race through Auster’s sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Just as Born seduces Walker, Auster will seduce you. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself a part of a clever, incestual literary love game – the only difference is, unlike Walker, you won’t want to find your way out.
Invisible by Paul Auster (Faber and Faber, Ltd., 2009)