Monday 22 February 2010

'playing cards with the devil'

by Paul Auster

After reading and reviewing Oracle Night recently I was surprised to see what a cool reception the book had received on publication. Indeed, many reviewers at the time felt as though Auster may well have performed his meta-fictional loop-the-loop so much as to disappear up his own backside. Perhaps it was the break from Auster that had come before my own reading that made it seem far more palatable than that at the time, but having now read his latest novel, Invisible, a book in which Auster delivers on his talent more completely than in any I have read since The Book Of Illusions, I can begin to see their point. Let's not dwell on that though but celebrate the achievements of this return to form.

The first section of the book, Spring, is presented as a standard first-person account by Adam Walker of a meeting whilst he was a student at Columbia in 1967. The enigmatic Rudolf Born, a visiting professor, and his partner Margot are like studies in European chic, he dressed in white, she in black, and their befriending of Walker at a party is just the beginning of a complex trinity. Whilst Margot remains almost silent Born enthusiastically encourages the young student predicting that he will write his biography, and it isn't long before Born is proposing a venture: a literary magazine that he will finance and Walker will edit. In every aspect of this partnership Born is in control and Walker passive; even when Walker and Margot begin an affair in Born's absence it is something he has almost pushed them into and we feel that it may be at Born's behest. This sexual awakening is a revelation for Walker, 'a beginner in the arms of a veteran',

...Margot was so comfortable with herself, so knowledgeable in the arts of nibbling, licking and kissing, so unreluctant to explore me with her hands and tongue, to attack, to swoon, to give herself without coyness or hesitation that it wasn't long before I let myself go. If it feels good, it's good. Margot said at one point, and that was the gift she gave me over the course of those five nights. She taught me not to be afraid of myself anymore.

On Born's return however the rules of the game change after an act of random violence, an event that blows apart Walker's world and sends Born fleeing to France. Then we come to the second section of the book where a college colleague of Walker's, Jim Freeman, a novelist, receives a parcel with a covering letter explaining that now, 40 years later, Walker is dying of leukaemia and trying to write a memoir, the first part of which we have just read. He is struggling with the next section, Summer, so disgusted with the story he needs to tell and it is on Jim's advice that he employs the unfashionable second-person narration. That distance allows him to return to the dysfunction within his family, the grief that followed the death of his infant brother and the night he spent in sexual experimentation with his sister when both were teens, a night deemed safe and harmless due to its isolation and the agreement that it would never be repeated. A regular feature of their relationship since has been to meet and reminisce on the anniversary of their brother's death and it is on this day in the summer of '67 that the two of them fall into 'an unholy matrimony' in the days leading up to Walker's journey to study in Paris. As in the first section this period of sexual adventure is by definition finite. Constrained by Born's impending return in the first case and Walker's approaching flight in the second, each encounter is heightened in its intensity, dangerous for different reasons.

Fall, is the third section in which Freeman fleshes out the notes left by Walker into a third-person narration of his sojourn in Paris. Sojourn is a rather cosy word for what is a tale of intrigue and revenge in which Walker attempts to outwit the man who eluded him back in New York, a dangerous game given the ruthlessness and connections which Born clearly possesses. Paris also sees a resumption of relations between Walker and Margot, for whom the importance of sex is not to be underestimated.

If she couldn't have sex she would probably kill herself to escape the boredom and monotony of being trapped inside her own skin.

Very French. The fillip in the final section is achieved by having Freeman in the present day follow up on the characters that have played the supporting roles in Walker's story. Through his conversations and another manuscript, which continues the story of Born we become party to new information that forces us to question the veracity of everything we have accepted as true. This is classic unreliable narrator territory, and Auster keeps it ambiguous. Some other reviewers have found this book too to be self-reverential in its literary playfulness and narrative shifts but it felt to me as though each shift in style was justified and the exploration of storytelling compelling. All of that cleverness is no good naturally if it gets in the way of the story or slows the pace too much but Auster keeps the pages turning by employing thriller like plotting, intrigue, revenge and revelation. I think the novel benefits, in a manner similar to The Book Of Illusions, from wider vistas. By moving beyond the closed world of Brooklyn, familiar from much of his writing, and including Paris and even a remote Caribbean island in his canvas there is some room to breathe.

There is still the matter of distance and connection. Comparing Auster to other writers can remind you what a safe distance he maintains from what he is writing about. One can only imagine what Roth for example would have made of a story involving adultery, murder and incest; how close one would have found oneself to the heat, the fear, the anger and the danger. But I'm not sure Auster has ever been that kind of writer so it may be unfair to accuse him of not connecting in that way. What he does, when he does it well, has its own merits, and in Invisible he seems to be doing it once again with confidence and, perhaps more importantly, with relish and enjoyment.


M 23 February 2010 at 05:57  

Interesting review. There seems to be an interesting connection that unites sexuality and writing with identity formation in this work, and especially how both sex and writing are acts of transgression.

I haven't read much Auster, but the little I have read always implies an identity through writing, narrative entrapments, or even self-erasure through writing. In any case, it goes without saying that writing is not just the medium but a power in Auster's worlds.

What's I find interesting about your review of Invisible is that it highlights sex, in addition to writing, as a powerful creative source. Would you say that this is a theme in Auster's other works?

Thanks for a great read!

William Rycroft 23 February 2010 at 12:32  

Thanks for the comment 'm' and you're spot on about the importance of writing in Auster's work. It's often about that process and together with the theme of identity makes up the major thrust of his work (as far as I can tell in my limited experience - I have read only six of his novels).

Sex is given a prominence in this book which it doesn't have so much in the others I have read, becoming very much a part of the development of Adam as a character.

The critic James Wood wrote a bit of a hatchet job on Auster in The New Yorker, which you can read here, in which he summarises the overarching themes and devices in his work. Despite the snarky tone it makes clear why some people love his work and others don't.

Anonymous,  23 February 2010 at 15:26  

A very helpful review, Will. I have had this volume on hand for a couple of months and put it down every time I pick it up. Perhaps more than any other author for me, Auster requires a very special mood -- I like his work very much when I am in the right mood, but often find him frustrating. The outline you have provided here is most useful -- I'll get to this one eventually in a more positive frame of mind thanks to this.

William Rycroft 24 February 2010 at 00:51  

Glad to have made you feel more positive about it Kevin, I only hope that's still the case once you've read it!

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP