Paul Auster's fans know that beginning with his earliest work — his 1985-86 New York Trilogy, which revolves around a detective named Max Work — he has drawn upon the fast pacing, structure and noirish sleights of hand common to detective stories. He starts off with a mystery, sprinkles his pages with clues and constructs numerous elaborate scenarios in which Auster-like narrators find themselves randomly drawn into moments of violence or sexual pleasure.
His latest novel, Invisible, continues this tradition. It begins during the Vietnam era, a time of political turmoil and sometimes violent intergenerational conflict, when espionage and skulduggery infiltrated intellectual circles and university campuses.
Like most Auster novels, Invisible nests stories within stories. The first of four sections is set in 1967 and narrated by Adam Walker, a young poet studying at Columbia (Auster's alma mater). After a chance meeting, Adam is lured into a sexual triangle by an older man, a charismatic French visiting professor, Rudolf Born, and his girlfriend Margot.
Adam is aglow with youthful ambition, lust and self righteousness. His instinctive reaction to the enigmatic Born is to find him repellent. Yet he agrees to edit a literary magazine Born has offered to fund. Their enmeshment is in place when a random act of street violence triggers Adam's outrage at Born. His search for truth bedevils Adam for decades.
This first section of Invisible, it turns out, is the beginning of a memoir Adam is writing about his disturbing relationship with Born. In 2007, dying from leukemia, he has contacted Jim, a college classmate who became a successful author, and has asked for advice. Jim agrees to read the forthcoming sections of the memoir and is drawn into Adam's struggle to decipher the riddle of Rudolph Born.
Throughout the novel, Auster makes sure we are complicit in that search. We're with him, sifting through conflicting information, wondering who is telling the truth. Adam? Or Rudolph? After 40 years, can anyone's memory be trusted?
Some of Auster's novels are so solipsistic as to be virtually unreadable. And, indeed, there are scrappable moments in Invisible, as when Jim offers writing advice to Adam: "By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible. ... I needed to separate myself from myself, to step back and carve out some space between myself and my subject (which was myself) ..."
But Invisible won me over. Underlying Auster's game-playing is a powerful moral imagination. And he is superb at illuminating the ongoing reinvention of the self, and the subtle ways in which we collaborate with those who would seduce, deceive and betray us.