August 19, 2010

Paul Auster: Invisible

Posted in Auster Paul at 8:00 am by John Self

Paul Auster’s Roth-like run of productivity continues. After producing just one short book between 1994 and 2002, since then he has published seven novels, with another one due in a few months’ time. The high points of this recent run were the first two – The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night – and results since then have been mixed. His UK publishers Faber are trying to sell his most recent novel as a blockbuster of sorts – just look at the cover below – with “page-turner” featuring in three of the quotes used. Well, Auster’s books are page-turners, but anyone raised on airport thrillers will not find much to please them here; and nor may seasoned Auster fans like me.

Invisible was a disappointment almost from start to finish. It is a four-part story telling of part of the life of Adam Walker, three of them by Adam within a framing device, and then a coda in another voice.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, as it means I have no desire to reveal spoilers – I wasn’t remotely interested in Adam’s story, which was the usual Auster stuff of chance encounters, mysterious strangers, sexual impulses and political engagement. Part of the reason for my lack of interest might have been the fact that I had been led to believe there was a surprising end to the story, so I was more interested in the framing device than in the ‘main’ story within it. Not Auster’s fault.

As it turns out, the ending wasn’t so much surprising as just unsatisfying, an odd coda somewhat resembling ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Worse, the main body of the book was somewhat flabby, and waffly – Auster (or his narrator) saying everything several times, seemingly to enforce feelings that his cool prose never really evoked otherwise. It’s very hard to say what Adam’s story was about – thematically – because it just seemed to be about exactly what he tells us: revenge, shame, all the big ones. That said, Auster remains as efficient a storyteller as ever, and the pages almost blur beneath the hand – it took me just over a day to read its 310 pages, a breakneck speed for me these days.

Looking around for commentary on the book, I found James Wood’s review (and appraisal of Auster’s other books) from The New Yorker. I think Wood has the book nailed, but more worryingly, I found it hard to dissent from his comments on Auster’s work generally (the parody that opens the piece is painfully accurate). The weaknesses which Wood identifies, however, are not fatal. Auster has a kind of hypnotic effect in his prose – that storytelling magic – which enables or encourages the reader to bypass all kinds of implausibilities, the sort that look ridiculous when Wood isolates them. And because his books are page-turners, the reader tends to notice not so much specific phrases as overall effects.

Nonetheless I reread my earlier reviews of Auster’s recent books, and wondered, with a creeping sense of dread, if I would like the novels of his I’ve praised before if I read them now. Is this one of those moments where one begins to part company with a well-loved writer? Or is Invisible just a dud? I’m not sure I’ll dare, yet, to pick up his forthcoming Sunset Park to find out.

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25 Comments »

  1. Tom C said,

    I had a similar sense of mild let-down with Philip Roth’s last couple of books – after the wonderful Human Stain. I don’t think I’ll read the Auster having read your review although it was on my list at one point.

  2. I enjoyed this one more than I thought I would after having lost touch with him as an author after the excellent Book Of Illusions and Oracle Night (which I actually read much later). Perhaps my enthusiasm when reading it came from it not being as bad as it could have been rather than it actually being as good as I thought it was. I enjoyed the structure of the book and the way the narrative tenses changed to serve the story. It’s a pretty cold book though and I’ve never come close to being tempted to read it again. As for Sunset Park, it appears to contain a lot of sex between a older man and younger woman (perhaps he and Roth have more in common than being prolific) and has me very worried indeed.

  3. Mrs.B. said,

    I was very disappointed in this one too and I’m a big, big fan of Auster. I think the incest really turned me off. I really didn’t understand what the point was of all that. My review is here: http://theliterarystew.blogspot.com/2010/01/invisible.html

    My favourites Auster books are (not in order): The Brooklyn Follies, The New York Trilogy and Leviathan. The ones you mentioned were also quite good.

  4. I’ve only read Leviathan, though I also own the New York Trilogy. The Brooklyn Follies eh? Perhaps after the NY3.

    Otherwise, well, I’m reading nothing to tempt me to continue that much further with him. It is peculiar (or perhaps not) how some artists as they get older put lots of sex with young women in their works. Woody Allen springs to mind as a cinematic equivalent.

  5. Steph said,

    I’ve only read The New York Trilogy by Auster, but I really enjoyed it. I found it challenging and quite exhilarating and would definitely like to read more by him. But perhaps I’ll skip this one, or at least hold off on it unless I decide to become an Auster completist.

  6. I find that Auster, perhaps more than any other author, requires me to be in the right mood when I pick up one of his books — and even then he often misses, although when he hits it is with major impact. Having said that, this review convinces me that there are better Auster options yet to be read before Invisible.

  7. Guy Savage said,

    I read Invisible last year after ignoring Auster for years. I ripped through it and enjoyed it–especially the presentation of Born at the end. Put it down, bought the New York Trilogy, and then recently saw that Sunset Park was up next. Oddly enough, and I didn’t analyse my feelings, I had no desire to read it.

    As for the New Yorker parody: ouch. I didn’t relate to it as I’ve only read Invisible, but I could see how it might sting if you’d read a lot.

    Finally on parting company with a long-favoured author– Johnny Rotten’s immortal quote: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

  8. leroyhunter said,

    It sounds absolutely terrible! I suppose I should admit straight out that I’m allergic to Auster – I found the NY trilogy ho-hum and gave up on The Book of Illusions. His position of relative critical eminence is a total mystery to me.

    I’m not sure “storytelling efficiency” is enough to make up for the serious flaws that Wood ennumerates – and that you refer to here as well John. Also not quite sure how that quality squares with your description of “flab and waffle”…

  9. ijsbrand said,

    Ha, at last I can point to an ancient review on my boeklog stating my opinions about Auster’s fiction in English.

    Auster has the same effect as Delillo; the first book you read from him can be mesmerizing. But the same high is difficult to get from the next books, weirdly enough.

    • Paul G said,

      NY3 is from 1985/86 or there about. Today is 2010, if you don;t know it. You’ve, changed, I’ve changed, the outside world have changed since then, like if you have not noticed!

      Sex or food? Do you want Auster to write “restaurant reviews”? Nick’s Fish and Wine is quite “tasty” at times! Thinking about young dames and the old times? Give me a break, will you, Otis!

  10. DOT said,

    It’s a dud, a one-off collapse. Least I hope it’s a one-off as I enjoy his output generally.

    Unlike leroyhunter, I found the NY trilogy mesmerising.

  11. Nick said,

    After Travels in the Scriptorium I’ve decided not to follow Auster anymore.
    I’ve enjoyed the New York Trilogy, the Brooklyn follies less.
    Maybe I’ll still try the Book of Illusion since I own it but that’s the only reason.

    Too many Auster for me.

  12. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I’ll cling to the belief that my former Auster experiences hold good – because they do, of course, even if I wouldn’t feel the same way about the books now (but what does that matter?). Nick, I do recommend The Book of Illusions which is my usual recommendation for people starting out with Auster.

    ijsbrand, interestingly, The Invention of Solitude is probably the only book of Auster’s I haven’t read. I did buy it when I was stockpiling books about fatherhood as I was waiting to become a dad (little knowing that after the event, I wouldn’t have time to read them) – along with stuff like John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father.

    • Lee Monks said,

      The Invention Of Solitude is an exceptional piece of work – if pretty grim.

  13. Paul G said,

    Yes, I concur! Read the NY3 and was totally sold! (for a couple of hours, don’t tell!) I just happened to see this last piece of his work n a book store in Dalian, Liaoning province, CHINA (People’s Republic of Chine that is!)(don’t tell!) I was actually very interested in buying, but at the counter, asking for the price, they wanted to charge me 189.00 RMB – can you believe that! I told them:”better keep it in a safe somewhere, than letting it out in the free public domain, somebody might come by and steel it from you! That’s a good and fine price, you’ve better keep it.” I told them and turned my right hand down flatly – like this. And then I just walked out the door, proud and strong, keeping my head up and shoulders straight. Better luck next time, boy!

  14. gaskella said,

    Maybe I was hypnotised by this one as I really enjoyed it!

  15. Tom C said,

    I have read other reviews of this which broadly concur with your own – you have persuaded me to give it a miss although I was about to order it. I feel rather similarly about Philip Roth who seemed to reach a late-flowering pinnacle with The Human Stain but now only leads to disappointment.

    I thought I’d made this comment before or something similar so must have forgotten to press “submit”.

  16. I found this a very puzzling book for several reasons. Firstly, it seemed more like a long string of sub-plots than a single coherent narrative. Second, Rudolf came across as the central character rather than Adam, as he is the catalyst for many of the plot twists. Third, there are episodes like the incest confession and the Quillia visit that add virtually nothing to the main narrative. And fourth, many of the plot developments, like the funding of the literary magazine and Adam’s arrest, are too far-fetched to be credible. More a mixed grill than haute cuisine, I would say.

  17. john h said,

    I’m not very knowledgeable about Auster. I read a couple of his books a long time ago and can’t even remember which ones. Needless to say, they didn’t make much of an impression. My son recently sent me “Oracle Night” though and I was very surprised to find how much I enjoyed it. His sense of plotting in that book was terrific, I thought. One of my favorite movies is “Smoke” which is a script of his.

  18. I’ve loved other books by Auster but not this one and Mr Self I’ve been relying on you to explain the ending to me, what on earth was that all about? I almost felt that perhaps a whole chunk of the book must have been missing in my copy.

  19. John Self said,

    Dgr, I did read your comments on the book as I was reading it (and it may have been these that made me fixate on the ending to the detriment of the rest of the book). But I’m afraid that I was so fed up with it by halfway through that I didn’t analyse it particularly. Do you mean the very ending, or the whole last section?

  20. Ian M said,

    I must disagree vigorously with the consensus that this book is unworthy. While Auster’s post-Leviathan decline (with the exception of the Book of Illusions) is somewhat real, I still enjoy his hypnotic prose and philosophical puzzles. His lack of breadth in characters is well-documented, and certainly accurate to a degree, but his strength has always been his originality, and if you like or dislike him, it is probably a reflection of the values you place on character development vs ingenuity.

    But either way, this book is different. The twists, turns, and philosophical puzzles are tied to an urgent purpose – a purpose greater than the vengeance the protagonist professes to seek after Part 1. This purpose is only revealed in the final paragraph. After reading this paragraph, it is as if you emerge from running through a dark tunnel into sunlight, and look back to see the path you took illuminated.

    This book contains some of the very greatest evocations of time and place present in any of Auster’s fiction – hot summer in the student ghettos of 1967 New York, the intellectual wanderings through the streets of a Paris that is at once still present and from a time gone by, the mansion in a two-faced island paradise. The shortcomings of some of Auster’s previous works and their abstract, solitary characters playing games in their own minds is replaced by a breathless realization of the world in this book. Please, readers, give this tight, emotional, magnificent novel a chance.

  21. John Self said,

    Ian, thank you for your passionate defence of Invisible. I must confess that the last line is not one which struck me with any particular force, so it may be that my reading of the book is the worse for that. As I indicated above, for me the tree had tilted toward the negative side from about halfway through the book, and it is almost impossible to right it in those circumstances. It’s likely that even if I had recognised the last line as one which recast the entire preceding story, I would have dismissed it at that stage as trickery. And I would also say that that seems a fair response in those circumstances: just as a comedy sketch cannot rely on its punchline alone, so a novel cannot expect the reader to await the last page for satisfaction. Though it is clear from your comments that you were enjoying the book throughout, thus making you much more likely to accept, and even celebrate, the ending in a positive light. I maintain that for me, as someone is generally well disposed toward Auster and values ingenuity above character development, this is one of the runts of his litter.

  22. Last moment twists are an interesting issue. Greene was a master of the final line and in some cases it did recast what had gone before. At least one Huxley redeemed itself utterly for me in the final few pages; transforming from a book I loathed to one that I have a lot of respect for (though not enough to remember the title it seems).

    I also thought about Things Fall Apart but the final paragraph there is the brilliant summation of the book rather than a recasting of it.

  23. LeeMonks said,

    I think that Auster has become gradually less guileful about masking his intentions, namely: attempts at imbuing mundanities with a sense of pre-destined magic/translating quotidian phenomena as orderly design.


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