Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: Invisible by Paul Auster

Henry Holt, 2009

Invisible, Paul Auster’s new coming-of-age novel—which is thrillingly unlike anything you would expect a coming-of-age novel to be—brings to mind Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream, the tortured quartet of autobiographical novels that the almost-famous author of Call It Sleep, decades removed from the publishing world, completed in a grand-scale bloodletting at the very end of his life. Though also monumentally talented, Roth, unlike Paul Auster, was a novelist who could write of nothing but himself, his experiences, and the Yiddish New York of his youth. The one time he tried anything else—a disastrous mid-’30s effort to fictionalize the life of a prominent union leader to please his lefty comrades who had disparaged the apolitical Call It Sleep—it sent him careening into decades of depression and writer’s block.

But it wasn’t just the inability to write about matters other than his own life that ruined Henry Roth. It was also knowing that to write honestly about his life after the age of 12 (that is, a few years older than David Schearl in Call It Sleep) would mean facing the horrors of his adolescence in general and, in particular, the horrors of his adolescent self.

So, in Roth’s case, we’re left with the autobiographical novel-as-deathbed confession, which is very much what we find in the story at the core of Paul Auster’s Invisible, in which a dying man named Adam Walker struggles to recount, forty years later, three seasons of a year that’s cast a dark shadow over his life ever since. As in most of Auster’s novels, Walker's tale isn’t the only narrative in the book. The story is told in multiple narrative voices, and comes wrapped in another story that leads us to a stunning, Heart of Darkness-like parallel concluding narrative. Each of the book's four interlocking sements, in its own way, throws into sharp relief the peculiar projects that autobiographical novels—particularly the end-of-life variety—tend to be.

Roth, likewise, presents the Mercy of a Rude Stream series in two voices: the first-person narrator telling the story of Roth’s fictional alter ego, the adolescent Ira Stigman; and the bracketed interjections of Ira as an old man, complaining to his computer, whom he calls Ecclesias, about his exhaustion, his arthritis, and how deeply conflicted he feels about the work he's undertaken. This narrative device is little more than annoying in the first volume, although it does have the Austerian virtue of metafictional contextualization in an eminently readable narrative: It reminds you that there’s a story being told, with its mechanics exposed, and acknowledges that the man telling it may not be up to the challenge (which is another problem with the first volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream). It also serves notice that the tale of the teller is part of the story too.

In the second installment of the Mercy series, Roth returns, fully in command of his old writing powers (minus the Joycean interior monologue of Call It Sleep, which he'd grown to detest), and with a much more understandable reason to hate himself for what he’s doing. About 100 pages into the book, a younger sister suddenly appears in (young) Ira’s story, telling Ira to check the door of their parents’ bedroom to make sure it’s locked. All of a sudden we have a new family tree, updating the one presented at the beginning of the first two books, with a sister’s name added next to Ira’s. We also get an earful of self-loathing unleashed from old Ira onto Ecclesias. It’s in the next several pages that we're introduced to the ugly truth of Ira’s youth: several years spent sexually abusing his younger sister, and later, a younger cousin.

Just as Paul Auster would have it—not in the sense of exposing or exploiting the private lives of authors, but in terms of complete and compelling stories being the product of intertwined and nested narratives—to know the story of Ira Stigman in Mercy of a Rude Stream, and the story of Henry Roth’s bizarre late-in-life “comeback,” is inevitably to know that the story of Ira and his sister is part of Roth’s own story, and that it absolutely devastated Roth’s sister to see it published. An angry and anguished correspondence bears witness to the rift the books created between the elderly siblings. Roth’s defense—that he wrote the books to validate and preserve the vanished Yiddish world, rather than to purge his own conscience—is unforgivable at worst, and half-true at best. (Roth’s sister replied, in essence, that no one could possibly read a book about a Yiddish-speaking brother and sister having sex with each other and come away with a positive impression of diaspora Jews in early 20th-century New York. There’s much, much more to Mercy of a Rude Stream than incest—and much magnificent storytelling to justify Roth's apologia—but it's hard to imagine a writer choosing a more indefensible road to redemption.)

Auster's Invisible takes on all of this: the deathbed autobiographical novel, the struggle to find the voice to tell the story, the good and bad reasons for writing it, the complex reactions of people that the author knew it would shock and/or hurt, the question of what’s true and what isn’t, and the weird road the book travels to find its way into the world. Roth’s story (like the story within his story) is messier than the stories that drive Invisible. But what’s so amazing about Invisible—and what makes it a triumph of the first order for Auster—is that it so compellingly manages to be a novel about the way guilt, rage, regret, narcissism, unsettled scores, wishful thinking, failed ambitions, flawed best guesses, not knowing when to shut up, and simply running out of time can shape the stories we tell at the end of our lives. And, of course, it also concerns the complex ways in which these stories sometimes become books. Keeping in mind that this is Paul Auster we’re talking about, it should come as no surprise that the "book" in Invisible turns out not to be the book we initially imagine it is—nor the book we imagine it to be the next time we think we know.

Lest I give the impression that Invisible is 90% intellectual exercise and 10% fiction—like Auster’s allegorical Travels in the Scriptorium (2007)—I assure you that it’s anything but. The first section, told in the first person, is a scorcher: tense, weird, sprinkled with sexual intrigue, and culminating in violence that sets up the rest of the book. This violent incident also serves notice for the first time that this probably is not a crypto-autobiographical story about Paul Auster the introverted, awkward, arrogant aspiring poet and French translator at Columbia in 1967, even though young Adam Walker's vital stats seem to jibe with what we know about the author at that age. But in subsequent pages we not only get the sense that Walker isn’t Auster; we also realize that (spoiler alert) the first-person narrative we’ve just read is just the first section of a book in progress that Walker has sent to an old friend who’s in the publishing business. Essentially, it’s a nested storyline in the hands of a guy trying to figure out what to do with it—a task that becomes more and more perplexing to him as the book goes on. And this is precisely the ride Auster wants to take us on.

Maybe this is just the Auster fanboy in me speaking, but my favorite moments in his books often come when he reminds me of his unique ability to upset the apple cart of narrative unity without ever compromising narrative flow. And I doubt I’ve seen a novelist define, so well, exactly what makes him so damn good, as when Jim Freeman, Adam Walker’s old friend in publishing, decides how he’s going to handle (and then presents) the last unfinished manuscript Walker sends him:

Telegraphic. No complete sentences. From beginning to end, written like this. Goes to the store. Falls asleep. Lights a cigarette. In the third person this time. Third person, present tense, and therefore I decide to follow his lead and render his account in exactly that way—third person, present tense. As for the enclosed pages, do with them what you will. He had given me his permission, and I don’t feel that turning his encrypted, Morse-code jottings into full sentences constitutes a betrayal of any kind. Despite my editorial involvement with the text, in the deepest, truest sense of what it means to tell a story, every word of Fall was written by Walker himself.

As it turns out, there’s another delicious layer of narrative recasting to come that requires you to refocus your vision on the story you’re actually reading, and in the best sense of novel-reading revelry, it makes you wish Auster would pile on another and another layer to keep you improbably suspended on the high-wire of his invention. If that's not "the deepest, truest sense of what it means to tell a story," I suppose I'll just have to wait for Paul Auster's next novel to find out what is.

Order Invisible from Powell's Books.

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