By Paul Auster
(Henry Holt; 308 pages; $25)
Paul Auster is a chilly, spooky writer. His characters find themselves trapped in psychological mazes. His worlds feel as though they're governed by outside forces with strange, inhuman ideas.
"Invisible," his 15th novel, is warmer and more human than the stuff he's famous for. It's still a cold book, but unlike in the novels of "The New York Trilogy," this chill resonates in the real world.
In 1967, promising undergrad Adam Walker meets the mysterious Rudolf Born. Born gives the aspiring poet money to start a literary magazine and then practically arranges for him to sleep with Born's sophisticated French girlfriend. Then one day, Born commits cold-blooded murder right in front of his protege. Distraught over the moral outrage and his own lost innocence, Walker follows Born to Paris to exact punishment.
The story is told in four parts, starting with a first-person novella that allows the reader to experience the violence through the narrator's eyes. The second is told in a bizarre, second-person singular, with "you" substituted for "I." The third part, discovered on his computer after Walker dies, is told in a sketchy third person.
In the fourth part, Jim, the friend to whom Walker sent his manuscripts, hunts down Celine, the woman who fell in love with Walker in Paris. The four sections form a sort of path - we move from "I" to "you" to "he," to the narrator's total absence from this world. Yet it's the most distant view that gives us a sense of what Born and Walker really were.
Perhaps Auster is pulling one of his tricks - saying that editorial distance is a form of violence - but I think there's more. Vietnam looms over the entire book. Born's attitudes are very colonial; he's not only a vicious man, but he also claims to have learned his viciousness in Algeria, another French colony gone horribly wrong. This disjoint between American and contemporary colonial values warps both Walker's exterior world and his inner life.
Born is Walker's poison, and the man never recovers. It's a photographic negative of the young American going abroad: Walker doesn't find himself; he loses himself.
Had Walker had a true calling, he might not have been so distracted by a desire for justice. But like many aspiring young bookish sorts, he turned out to be neither the scholar nor the poet he had hoped. He becomes a civil rights lawyer, marries a lovely woman and yet is utterly haunted by 1967, the year that evil entered his life. Jim asks, "Who can blame a 20-year-old boy for losing his bearings in the blur of sophistication and depravity that surrounds a person like Born?" But the boy grown old never regains his bearings, not even on his deathbed.
He spends the next 40 years without discovering anything as fascinating or important as 1967, the one year Walker felt utterly alive. Yet this year was utterly horrible. In his desire to hurt Born, young Walker became a pint-size monster.
I don't think people read Auster because he's beautiful, although his spare, exact language has always reminded me of Mozart minus the emotional colors. He's a good read because he's confounding. Many writers are sure they've got the answers, but it's often more honest to admit there's no answer at all.
The reason to read this book is that it's a startling tale of how a life can be wasted through being ruled by the past. Unlike in "The New York Trilogy," Auster dumps the reader into a real mess, not something contrived. The confusion of waking up one day to discover you're old, the harsh shock of middle-class Americans discovering that not everyone shares their values - these jolts to the system are part of life.
This book is replete with Austerian hopelessness, but it's a hopelessness you can believe in.
The dread in "Invisible" is real.