This Paul Auster, this!

I.

I have finally read a Paul Auster that I wholeheartedly like in his fifteenth novel, Invisible.

My odd relationship with Auster’s fiction has made me his wary reader. I like the cerebral-ness of his works, yes, appreciate the craft — Auster the Trickster. But I always feel this lack of engagement. Auster The trickster juggling his postmodern doohickies, the reader almost just incidentally looking in. But I had high hopes for Invisible because I was told it wasn’t too much of the Auster I know.

The Auster I know is the Auster of The New York Trilogy: “Whenever anyone asks me what I think of Paul Auster’s work I always say: He doesn’t touch my heart. Whatever fascination and admiration I have for him, is purely on a technical [craft] perspective. His works, for me, do not resonate. I am in awe of his genius, but regard it from a distance. I have always respected him. I’ve always been fascinated about how he thinks, how he lays it all out on paper. I’ve always wanted to crawl inside his head. But: He doesn’t touch my heart.”

The Auster who presents us with questions upon questions on “existence, being, self-ness, reality, delusions, and the grain of truth behind illusions.” Questions, more questions. And more concepts. And more existential detective-y meta-narratives. And not-quite answers. Narratives where the reader has to jump through hoops to get to a single point, which, upon further digging, diverges into more roads and byways. A single point that immediately becomes suspect five paragraphs later. Auster the MindFuck. Auster, he who does not touch my heart.

I found this piece by the ever-amusing James Wood a while back. As a survey of Paul Auster’s oeuvre, it’s rather accurate — I find myself nodding to a point here, a grumble there. And the parody that opens the piece is cringe-inducing. But Wood is spot-on. Wood then describes, with his signature Grumpy Old Wise Guy tone, the Auster I know:

What Auster often gets instead is the worst of both worlds: fake realism and shallow skepticism. The two weaknesses are related. Auster is a compelling storyteller, but his stories are assertions rather than persuasions. They declare themselves; they hound the next revelation. Because nothing is persuasively assembled, the inevitable postmodern disassembly leaves one largely untouched. (The disassembly is also grindingly explicit, spelled out in billboard-size type.) Presence fails to turn into significant absence, because presence was not present enough. [Emphasis mine.]

I am all-too-aware of Auster’s flaws, the flaws that Wood enumerates. The straightforward prose that occasionally gives in to cliché, the philosophizing-in-a-teashop, the palpable distance between the author and his world, and the reader.

But, Invisible. These flaws are present here, yes — Wood details many, which I agree with, still — but I can stomach them. The literary gymnastics are there, but muted. It’s not all form and structural devices. Instead, they frame the story beautifully — at some points, simply akin to spices — because in Invisible, story is king. [Although, what story it is, exactly, shall be the subject of some navel-gazing later in this post.] There are dubious confessions — there are people who don’t seem who they are, people who never seem to be anything, for that matter. There are meta-narratives here too. Texts diddling with texts and all that meta-jazz.

But in Invisible, Auster the Stylist is not the end-all and be-all of the novel. Because at the core of the story — and the story is a story, and not just some vehicle for  literary devices or filtered philosophy — at the core of Invisible is a lot of heart.

Finally, an Auster text that won’t buckle under the weight of all that hoopla. Finally, an Auster text that has actual people in it that I’ll remember — people whose words and actions and loves will resonate. Finally, affect!

II.

It’s arguable what Invisible is about, exactly. [One can point out, too, that it is arguable, me claiming I like this.] On one hand, it’s about New York in 1967 — we are with a Columbia poetry student Adam Walker — young and handsome and idealistic, somehow promised in that he never realizes this himself, how magnetic he is. Of course, Auster’s doppelganger is magnetic and charmed and devilishly handsome.

Of course, he gets into a lot of trouble, and it all begins when he meets the stereotypically dangerous Rudolf Born, a “burnt-out soul, a shattered wreck of a man,” and his girlfriend, the silent and seductive Margot. Adam gets involved in their lives, and soon enough he gets entangled in Born and Margot’s, well, issues — take your pick: a dubious business venture, erratic tempers, temptations offered. And, always, this menacing undercurrent.

Something is not quite right with Rudolf Born. We are told that many times. Auster basically shoves this down our throat. Later, Adam reflects:

He had shown me something about myself that filled me with revulsion, and for the first time in my life I understood what it was to hate someone.

Adam witnesses [is an unwitting accessory?] to a violent crime — Born easily knifes a man who held them up [of course, the gun isn’t loaded], and threatens Adam. Basically along the lines of, “You do not say anything. You know what I’m capable of, so keep your mouth shut.”

Adam does keep his mouth shut, at first. But this gnaws at him:

This failure to act is far and away the most reprehensible thing I have ever done, the low point in my career as a human being. Not only did it allow a killer to walk free, but it also had the insidious effect of forcing me to confront my own moral weakness, to recognize that I had never been the person I had thought I was, that I was less good, less strong, less brave than I had imagined myself to be. Horrid, implacable truths.

And then we discover — hello, Auster the Stylist — that all this is part of a manuscript sent to one Jim Freeman. Adam Walker, old and sick, has resolved to write his 1967, and he needs Jim’s help [they knew each other, vaguely, in college] to help him write the rest of it. To help him figure it out. Perhaps to absolve Adam of the sins of his youth. Perhaps because writing it all down — for Adam, this is his act. This is, ultimately, his response, his act, his confession, his revenge.

Whatever revulsion Walker felt about himself could not have been caused by how he behaved at the end. It was the beginning that distressed him, the simple fact that he had allowed himself to be seduced, and he had gone on torturing himself about it for the rest of his life — to such an extent that now, even as his life was ending, he felt driven to march back into the past and tell the story of his shame.

More meta-narratives abound, more structural shakes and dips and spikes. But the novel takes a turn. The rest of it, essentially, is the heart of this novel. That is, the story with Rudolf Born and Margot, the continuation of Adam’s relationship with them — including a clumsy seduction, an inept concept of vengeance — that story, well, it’s mere padding.

This is Auster being Auster, for Auster’s sake. Because everything that does not concern Adam’s interactions with Rudolf Born and his whole cast of ominous misfits — that is the heart.

III.

Here is Auster telling a story, and I think that it’s one of the most honest stories he’s ever told. Unencumbered by stylistic showing-off, by complex philosophizing and psychoanalysis, by meta, by ooh-postmodern. So much heart in Paul Auster’s telling of the love between Adam and his as-beautiful sister Gwyn.

Is this so distasteful? Or, at the very least, creepy. It’s supposed to be. But it’s not. Instead, Auster has written a love that is tender and pure, and sadder because it’s very very wrong.

. . .you understood that there was no better thing in the world than to be kissed in the way she was kissing you, that this was without argument the single most important justification for being alive.

I can’t fully capture the experience of reading this quarter of the book dedicated to Adam and Gwyn’s love and passion for each other. [Note that, later, in a paragraph or two, Gwyn insists nothing of these three months of incest/bliss ever happened.] How to explain that I felt persuaded, and, thus, engaged in the story? How to explain that this confession touched me, because I then became witness to a secret that was at the crux of someone’s life, a secret that defined one so fully, all else simple dust? How to explain the euphoria at realizing that things matter here, finally — that there are things at stake, and you feel it so intensely because you feel for the characters so intensely?

Still, you and your sister never talk about what you are doing. You don’t even have a conversation to discuss why you don’t talk about it. You are living in the confines of a shared secret, and the walls of that space are built by silence, an insane silence that can be broken only at the risk of bringing those walls down upon your heads.

I felt that the story Auster wanted to tell was the love story between Adam and Gwyn. Or, perhaps, the love story between Adam and Gwyn was the story I dearly wanted Auster to tell — just that, nothing else, no smokescreens of comically evil Rudolf Born, no stereotype of mysterious temptress in an older woman, none of that, no.

But to focus on this love story wouldn’t be very Auster of him now, would it? And so he had to create as suspenseful and convoluted a narrative as the common norms of Postmodern Literary Fiction would allow him — the deceitful stranger and his silent, seductive girlfriend; murder and lies and revenge and belaboring-the-point metafictions. Ah, fuck it.

IV.

I read Invisible weeks ago — it is, in fact, my sixth read of 2011. And in all this time, thinking about what to say — thinking about what to feel — about this book, I become more and more certain of two things:

First: Invisible is Adam and Gwyn’s story, nothing else. I am treating it this way. I see the novel’s flaws as the stubbornness to distance itself from this love story, but, ultimately, the strength emanates from that pinch of pages that detail a three-month-long relenting of love between two people.

And, second [and more importantly?]: I like this “new” Paul Auster.

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5 comments

  1. Wondering, have you read Oracle Night? It’s one of my favorite Auster books, one of my favorite books ever, really, and I never would have thought it to be lacking in emotion or feeling. The book is about running away from your life, temptation, foundation shattering discoveries, and writing oneself into a hole, almost literally.

    I’ll definitely read this book but your review makes me weary. I don’t want Paul Auster to change.

  2. I agree, ‘Summer’ is for sure the very best part of the novel. Overall, though, not my favorite Auster novel by far. If you enjoyed this version of Auster you should give it a try to the recently published Sunset Park and/or The Brooklyn Follies—if you haven’t read those already, of course.

  3. Now, I regret I didn’t pick it up when I saw it on the display table at the bookshop. I thought I had already enough books by Auster on my shelves, but if this one is different…

  4. […] Paul Auster. Not the Auster I’m used to, not the convoluted post-modern woozy, definitely not the breathtaking shmexy-tenderness of Invisible. This time, he’s tackling exploring a post-apocalyptic […]

  5. […] New York Trilogy impressed me, but failed to touch my heart; and then, I was so in love with his Invisible that I hazarded saying, “I like this ‘new’ Paul Auster.” And so, when his latest came out […]

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