August 19, 2010
Paul Auster: Invisible
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.