Invisible: A Review
I'd never read any Paul Auster books before I cracked open his newest novel, a blue-steel-colored hardback called "Invisible." Actually, the book was a gift, or I might not have read this one either, but it was the last thing I received before I left New York, and so it was the first thing I unpacked. Don't know why I didn't get into Auster sooner.

Maybe I figured his prose would be dense and unsatisfying because his last name is only missing an "e" to make it into "austere." Patrician. Privileged. Flinty. Is that how we are gonna adjectivize Auster in the future, once he's dead and iconic? Austere?

Maybe it was paragraphs like this one in the "California Lit Journal" that kept me away from his books:

"Paul Auster is a writer, who, like Beckett, is obsessed with identity and the way it is constructed out of and through the medium of stories, words, or even the thinnest of airs. He places great emphasis on the need for storytelling. His characters are restless inquisitors, asking endless questions of life, undertaking journeys across the vastness of America, often in solitude, in pursuit of ends which even they themselves are unaware; and if these characters are not travelling outwards, then there is always the journey within. Indeed the odyssey, of one kind or another, be it on a large or a small scale, exterior or interior, is central to almost all his work. Auster's meandering creations seek the means by which they can live: by which they can be alive in the fullest sense. They are characters in search of an independent existence. Auster, like Ballard, is an author who subscribes to the belief that it is only through the construction of reality that we are truly able to perceive, rationalise and comprehend the one within which we are forced to spend our lives; he is fascinated by the breaking down of the boundaries between what is lived and what is read; and the blurring of the distinction between what is experienced and what is written."

Makes you want to run to the bookstore with your wallet out, doesn't it?

Anyway, like the preceding reviewer, I was all wrong about Auster, and I don't know why he inspires such feverish literary froth. He's not like Wallace or Franzen, who invite such overblown analysis and who basically beg to be Taken Seriously with every sentence they write. Instead, this novel suggests that Auster's an intense, crackling storyteller who uses meticulous craft to contain his overflowing plots in order to keep us unbalanced and engaged. "Invisible" was light, cruel, and hot -- like spicy fish soup.

Auster's no mandarin: he's a goddamn entertainer. He's not obsessed with "identity," or using fiction as a place to work out any grand philosophical ideas. He just clearly likes to write. This is fine by me. He's readable as hell.

I don't know about his other books. Maybe they are fussy literary things.

But why wasn't this book printed in lurid purple and stamped with blood, tits, dicks, and knives? Why was it called "Invisible," like some kind of bad French play? Why does literature have to pretend it is faded out and irrelevant, when this book was so obviously cheap and exploitative "trash," the kind of dirty book that a coach would pluck from your hands in class and smack you with?


Five better titles for "Invisible":

"Born" (in blood font)
"1967" (with sexy silhouettes)
"The Tryst"
"Blow Upon Blow"
"The Intelligence Agent" (with a leering, evil villain)


This book is about what happens when a milquetoast kid with literary ambitions is stroked and seduced by a sociopathic French political scientist who may or may not be an intelligence operative and who may or may not be a double agent. This French professor, a man named Rudolf Born, seduces our hero by promising to fund a struggling literary magazine with his vast personal fortune and promising to make our hero the editor. Born also offers up his comely young girlfriend Margot as a sex toy.

Everything goes wrong, of course. The experience breaks our hero's mind, plunging him into further "depravities" that will haunt him for the rest of his life. But this is not a moralizing book: the joy in the story here is palpable, and Born is no mere monster. He's an end, and as we all know, the ends move the middle.

"Invisible" is pretty short, and though it uses the trick of having four different sections that each use a different voice, the narrative is clean, linear, and satisfying. There are no John Barth-style funhouse mirrors here. Instead, Auster tells the story by leading us along a continuum from the most vibrant voice to the most accurate. He begins in first person, dallies in second, does a dance with choppy third, and then ends with journal entries, hinting that "fourth person" is writing meant for no one else to read, a story built purely for the page.

Auster's glee with the tangle of love and war is infectious. He opposes Born's martial malice with Margot's eroticism. Born is seen as the avatar of the military industrial complex, a cynical fascist who is too cruel and too cold to even pick a side. He LIKES war:

"Human beings were animals, he said, and soft-minded aesthetes like myself were no better than children, diverting ourselves with hairsplitting philosophies of art and literature to avoid confronting the essential truth of the world. Power was the only constant, and the law of life was kill or be killed, either dominate or fall victim to the savagery of monsters. He talked about Stalin and the millions of lives lost during the collectivization movement in the thirties. He talked about the Nazis and the war, and then he advanced the startling theory that Hitler's admiration of the United States had inspired him to use American history as a model for his conquest of Europe. Look at the parallels, Born said, and it's not as far-fetched as you'd think: extermination of the Indians is turned into the extermination of the Jews; westward expansion to exploit natural resources is turned into eastward expansion for the same purpose; enslavement of the blacks for low-cost labor is turned into subjugation of the Slavs to produce a similar result. Long live America, Adam, he said, pouring another shot of cognac into both our glasses. Long live the darkness inside us."

Margot, on the other hand, opens something inside our hero that can't be denied or squashed, giving our hero the tools to thwart Born and deny him the ultimate absolution he is seeking. Maybe she opens up too much in our hero, the novel suggests. But she also gives him the best year of his life and ensures that nothing is ever the same for him. She opens his imagination:

"Margot further arouses him with graphic stories about her sexual encounters with other women, her passion for touching and kissing large breasts (because hers are so small), for licking and fondling women's crotches, for thrusting her tongue deep into women's assholes, and while Walker can't tell if these are true stories or simply a ploy to get him hard again for their second go at it, he enjoys listening to this dirty talk, just as he enjoyed listening to Gwyn's dirty talk in the apartment on West 107th Street. He wonders if words aren't an essential element of sex, if talking isn't finally a more subtle form of touching, and if the images dancing in our heads aren't just as important as the bodies we hold in our arms. Margot tells him that sex is the one thing in life that counts for her, that if she couldn't have sex she would probably kill herself to escape the boredom and monotony of being trapped inside her own skin. Walker doesn't say anything, but as he comes into her for the second time, he realizes that he shares her opinion. He is mad for sex. Even in the grip of the most crushing despair, he is mad for sex. Sex is the lord and the redeemer, the only salvation on earth."

Our hero runs back and forth from Born to Margot, by turns seeking both love and revenge. The reader gets all the lurid details, revealing a portrait of an age filtered by its most torrid representatives.

We learn the truth. James Bond had a pot belly, and his girlfriend Barbarella was one bad night away from suicide.

I don't know about Paul Auster as icon, intellectual, philosopher, or American. But he's a damn good storyteller and this novel was fun, dark-hearted entertainment. Reading "Invisible" was like smoking really good cigarettes while drinking really good coffee and eating really good salmon. At a brothel. With guns! In tweed!

Posted by miracle on Fri, 13 Nov 2009 21:26:56 -0500 -- permanent link

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