Faber and Faber, 2009
Paul Auster is master of the disappearing act.
A critic once noted that John Donne’s poems would “start with something on the verge of disappearing and proceed to undo even that”. Auster shares this signature “insubstantiating” move with the 17th-century metaphysical poet. As suggested by the titles of his novels—In the Country of Last Things, Smoke, Moon Palace, The Book of Illusions—Auster likes to project first impressions of the tenuous and impalpable; from here, the novels often seem to drive toward, and beyond, their own vanishing points. Each narrative follows a similar formula: man chases disappearing man; stories generate stories; and the creation of a text is swiftly followed by its violent destruction. Thus, at the end of a novel defined by self-referential obliteration, the reader finds themselves asking: what, exactly, is left?
It is a question often levelled at Auster. There are those who would denounce his novels as collections of superficial, meta-textual circus tricks. The “smoke and mirrors” effect can be seen to both deceive and betray the reader, denying us our basic hermeneutic rights; if given nothing substantial, we can draw nothing substantial from a text. Invisible, Auster’s latest work, both confirms and challenges this perception. Still engaging themes of textual allusion and illusion, the novel follows the story of Adam Walker, an aspiring poet studying at Columbia University in the spring of 1967. Describing himself as a beautiful, “know-nothing boy” walking the cloistered quads of a privileged Ivy League college, Adam invites us to draw the obvious parallel with his biblical namesake. We expect his Edenic existence to be shattered; we expect temptation, corruption, a tragic fall from Grace, and maybe, just maybe, redemption.
Auster does not disappoint our expectations, at least not initially. Tempted into a professional relationship with Rudolf Born—a mysterious war-mongering, cigar-smoking Frenchman bent on taking the young poet under his wing—Adam finds himself witness to or, more specifically, silent witness to murder. For, despite being sickened by the 15 knife blows that Born deals to a kid who threatens them with an unloaded gun one evening in downtown New York, Adam cannot bring himself to come forward and recount the event to the authorities, not until it is already too late. The murder haunts him and, in turn, the reader. Indeed, the violent action comes to form the central trope of the work. “Blow upon blow”, “blow by blow”; the collocation, in all its variants, repeatedly punctuates and punctures the novel. In addition to invoking Born’s multiple stabbings, the plosive phrase becomes charged with the background violence of the Vietnam War and, most disturbingly, comes to signify—through its association with certain narrative modes—the illusory nature of truth.
This troubling polysemy is established in the opening pages of the novel. Before the murder takes place, Adam translates a long sequence from the 12th-century Provençal poet Bertram de Born and sends it to Rudolf Born as a gesture of good faith. Born’s “faux ancestor” was an angry poet whose verse delights in grotesque images of violent battle and death, its central claim being “no man can be a man / Until he has delivered and received / Blow upon blow”. The connotations of “blow upon blow” increase when Adam reminds us that the verse itself is a translation of the original French. Translations, like memories, are by no means “blow by blow accounts”; both mediums recontextualise events—be they poetic or “real” events—into a new language. The original experience gets lost in translation. Thus, the wasted energy of the written “blow” is channelled back to the reader in full. The violent realisation, our violent realisation, is that the reading experience removes us—severally—from truth.
What Auster looks to question is the fallout of this blow. Does the reader suffer, hermeneutically, once they are made aware of the “unreality” of the written endeavour? As Invisible progresses, the title state manifests itself—to the extent that invisibility can manifest—through the text’s undoing. Adam, writing his memoir retrospectively from an aged, cancer-ridden state, loses the thread of his memory and eventually passes away. Now a steadily degenerating manuscript of hazy recollections, the text is inherited by a series of other narrators. Adam’s sister Gwyn, his college roommate Jim, and an old acquaintance from France all contribute their voices, to varying effects. While Gwyn tries to censor/correct (we remain unsure which) a long section describing a highly erotic, incestuous affair between herself and Adam, Jim reveals that, in concealing the true identities of the characters, he has already overhauled the text we are reading: “the reader can therefore be assured that Adam Walker is not Adam Walker. Gwyn Walker Tedesco is not Gwyn Walker Tedesco…Not even Born is Born”.
We have been deceived. If Adam is not Adam, the biblical analogy the reader originally drew proves false. And if Born is not Born, the passage of verse cited earlier was an interpretative red herring. Hence, this very review—chastened by the illusory nature of its source material—risks being rendered null and void. Throw us a bone, we cry; something, anything, to hold onto. In his refusal, Auster claims to offer us something more. “Once you accept the ‘unreality’ of the enterprise, it paradoxically enhances the truth of the story”, the novelist alleges in a 2003 interview with The Paris Review:
The words aren’t written in stone by an invisible author-god. They represent the efforts of a flesh-and-blood human being and this is very compelling. The reader becomes a participant in the unfolding story—not just a detached observer.
In lieu of a bone, then, Auster finally offers the reader “flesh and blood”. To participate in storytelling is to participate in the human condition, alongside the writer. Like Gwyn and Jim, the reader recreates the text simply by engaging with it; it is human nature to narrate. Yes, the realisation that we are being denied truth may come as a violent blow, but it’s nothing compared to the impact our consciousness has upon the text—even (or, especially) in the very moment of such realisation.
The problem in Invisible is that Auster does little to convince us of the benefits of these “blows”. Throughout the novel, textual corruption mirrors cultural corruption; both are expressed through the vocabulary of violence and war. As we participate in and, subsequently, damage the original text, we cannot help but equate ourselves with the war-mongering Born. This is far from Auster’s idealistic vision: “A novel is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy”, he continues in the same Paris Review interview, “the reader and writer can make the book together”. Such an image of democracy and shared humanity sits uneasily alongside Invisible’s dominant lexis. Once again the text seems to be undoing itself, despite itself.
Only at the very end of Invisible does the “blow by blow” trope align with Auster’s literary ideal, finally transforming it into a symbol of shared humanity. As the last narrator of Adam’s manuscript makes her way home after chasing another of the text’s red herrings, she witnesses an unusual, enigmatic scene: in a barren field, 50 or 60 men and women pound away with hammers and chisels, reducing rocks to gravel dust and, in the process, generating a “fractious, stately harmony”. They are not in chains, nor are they in pain; they are simply and freely working. This, Auster seems to suggest, is the space of the novel; a space where two strangers, reader and writer, can meet on “terms of absolute intimacy”; a space where otherwise violent “blows” can create harmonious rhythms. And a space where invisibility, far from betraying us, offers mankind unifying, liberating purpose.
Amy Waite  is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford. Amy is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.