In fourteen novels as well as collected poems and essays, Paul Auster has aspired to give artistic form to meditations on personal identity and the art that might embody them. He is a virtuoso of metafiction, often organized as stories-within-stories that reflect upon themselves and one another. In his fifteenth novel, Invisible, Auster has fashioned a consummate instrument of existential mystery and literary reflexivity. In four bravura sections, the novel ponders the fate of Adam Walker, a student at Columbia University whose life is transformed by Rudolf Born, a charismatic but enigmatic professor from France.
An aspiring poet, Walker meets Born at a party in 1967, and the sophisticated stranger soon offers to finance a literary magazine that Walker would edit. Before departing for a brief return to Europe, Born also appears to encourage the young man to take his place in bed beside his lover, Margot Jouffroy. Walker is disturbed by Born’s nihilistic celebration of violence. 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.
That essential truth, according to Born, is “the darkness inside us.” When Born stabs and apparently kills Cedric Williams, a mugger who accosts them one evening, Walker is appalled and breaks with his would-be mentor.
James Freeman, a successful novelist, learns about these events in the early twenty-first century by reading a manuscript sent to him by Walker, whom he has not heard from since both were students at Columbia almost forty years before. Now a lawyer in Oakland, Walker is dying of leukemia, and he asks for Freeman’s professional advice about the memoir, titled 1967, that he is struggling to complete. Freeman encourages Walker to keep writing and to send him the second chapter. He does, and it turns out to be a lyrical evocation of the months after Walker’s falling-out with Born. It is set during the summer of 1967, when Walker has a job shelving books at Columbia’s Butler Library. He shares an apartment with his sister Gwyn, who is beginning graduate school in the fall. The chapter recounts how, for thirty-five consecutive days, until his departure to study in Paris, brother and sister engaged in passionate incest.
After reading the first two chapters, Freeman travels to California but arrives at Walker’s house in Oakland three days after the funeral of his old college classmate. However, obeying his request, Walker’s stepdaughter Rebecca hands the novelist the notes Walker left behind for the third chapter of 1967. The notes recount Walker’s experiences in Paris during the fall of that year. Making contact with Born again, he plots retribution for the murder of Cedric Williams. He learns that Born plans to marry Hélène Juin, whose husband, Born’s friend, has been incapacitated by an irreversible coma. Walker ingratiates himself with Hélène’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Cécile, and begins undermining Born’s hopes of marrying Hélène. He does not count on Born’s cunning and his connections with French espionage services.
After reading the notes for Walker’s third chapter, Freeman contacts Walker’s sister, Gwyn, who denies that any incest occurred between them. During a trip to Paris, he also tracks down Cécile Juin, now a doughty literary scholar. Cécile lets Freeman read entries from her diary that constitute part 4 of Invisible. Cécile’s journal tells how in 2002, after losing contact for many years, she suddenly received a letter from Born. Living alone on a Caribbean island called Quillia, he invited her to visit. When she did, she was dismayed by Born’s bizarre behavior and fled.
In four sections spanning forty years, Invisible thus makes use of three narrators: Freeman, Walker, and Cécile. The first three sections are told, successively, in the first person, the second person,...
(The entire section is 1,748 words.)