Invisible

By Paul Auster

Henry Holt & Company

308 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Judith Fitzgerald


Who gave you that numb?

- James Joyce

The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.

- Marshall McLuhan

Paul Auster's Invisible is anything but, beginning with its intriguing cover. Does the author's 15th foray into fiction - following the critically acclaimed Man in the Dark, Oracle, Travels in the Scriptorium, or the New York Trilogy - deserve its almost universal rapturous reception? Hardly.

Consisting of four interrelated acts without any real dénouement, Invisible comes off as a dreary and draining postmodern schtick playing off (or to) our expectations and realizations concerning forbidden love, moral failure, and, not surprisingly, the erasure of both self and ego (with variations on pedestrian themes of naming/numbing, absence/presence, acceptance/rejection, revenge/forgiveness, slave/master, et so forthia).

The romp commences in the spring of the summer of love at Columbia University and concludes 40 years later on a tiny Caribbean island. Its terminally damaged, overwrought characters are all but caricatures.

Among these are Adam Walker, a young man from Brooklyn seeking enlightenment. We meet Adam's beautiful, brilliant older sister Gwyn, and the ghost of his tragically deceased-by-drowning seven-year-old brother Andy. There's a distinguished Franco-Swiss visiting professor of "disaster" (a.k.a. International Studies) attached to the brittle yet irresistible Sig.O. Adam meets a Parisian mother-daughter duo during his de rigueur trek to the Left Bank. There's also the prolific James Freeman, one highly visible novelist (not unlike Auster himself, making of this wonderless work a kind of strange roman à clef as well).

Predictably, worlds collide - exactly as readers know they will. Adam find himself hopelessly half-baked in a twisted pretzel of a puzzle related by a trio of interested parties from each player's unique yet curiously undifferentiated point of view - regardless of the voice or tense Auster deploys - liberally sprinkled with illicit sexcapades and illogical philosophical tirades. It all culminates in the all-too-convenient and literally unbelievable murder of a would-be thug named Cedric Williams. (Don't ask.)

When all is said and done to death, readers seeking pleasure in the kind of thing Auster is trying to do in Invisible might find more to savor in Canadian Nino Ricci's closing volume of his award-winning trilogy, Where She Has Gone (which also includes the equally stunning Lives of the Saints and In a Glass House).

Vague allusions to Narcissus, Gertrude Stein, Joseph Conrad, and Georges Perec (among others), interwoven with clever nods to Joyce, do not a successful novel make. How much faith (or suspension of disbelief) can readers invest in a threadbare story twice removed in time, with questionable witnesses retelling the tales of others? Did Walker and his sister actually step over that egregious line? Does Born deserve the kind of attention bestowed upon him? Will Auster's next novel give readers little more than boxes within boxes?

Readers can always dream (even as the contemporary miasma of postcultural desperation envelopes all, one assumes). With Invisible, an anything-but-austere failure, consumers will either find themselves lost in the author's near-obsessive zeal for creating pseudo-profound meta-textual Möbius strips or wind up wanting to throw the book at its contriving and trying progenitor:

hen one night the solution came to me. My approach had been wrong, I realized. By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible, had made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for. I needed to separate myself from myself . . . I became He, and the distance created by that small shift allowed me to finish the book . . . Perhaps the material was too wrenching and personal for him to write about it with the proper objectivity in the first person.

Perhaps "He" might have fared better had "He" taken such sage advice to heart.

God knows. I sure don't.

The 30th work of poet, cultural critic and literary journalist Judith Fitzgerald (jfemail@judithfitzgerald.ca), "Rogue Lightning," will appear next year. She covers poetry for The Toronto Globe and "In Other Words," the Toronto Globe and Mail's books blog.