Throughout his career, Paul Auster has invented puzzle-box novels where the puzzle is less in the plot, which often seems to bore him slightly, and more in the construction of the novel itself. It’s common to find an Auster novel where the answers don’t emerge from the storyline or the characters, but from what tense he tells the story in, or the point of view he adopts throughout. His latest, Invisible, is just such a novel, but it ultimately proves so enamored of its puzzle-like nature that all of the characters are unknowable.
It certainly doesn’t help Auster’s cause that Invisible is told through three narrators, one of whom readers barely get to know at all, and another who keeps shifting voices, from first to second to third person, as if absolving himself for a crime he continues to flagellate himself over. The novel dances around the edges of an answer to its central question—what happened to sensitive young poet Adam Walker over the spring and summer of 1967?—refusing to just spell out events as all its unreliable narrators obfuscate each other’s stories.
This turns Invisible into a dry, intellectual exercise throughout, even though Auster is dealing with big, emotional ideas like incest and the murder of an innocent. His characters beat themselves up over things they did or didn’t do, then turn right around with a witty rejoinder, and too many of them seem more like props in a play than like people. (Even Auster comments on that.)
But at least the novel’s puzzle is damned compelling. The three voices hook up in unusual ways, slyly offering hints at what really happened without coming out and stating it verbatim. Besides attempting to figure out just what happened to Adam, the three narrators are also intent on trying to understand the two people who shook up Adam’s life: vicious Frenchman Rudolf Born and his lover, Margot.
Auster’s method of characterization from the outside in sees its fullest flowering in Rudolf, a man with voracious appetites whose moods can turn on a dime, and whose propensity for violence creates the situation that Adam spends his entire life trying to atone for. Rudolf is a man without a code, a man in search of others to draw into his circle and corrupt. Margot, meanwhile, seems unable to deal with just how much being with Rudolf has marked and shaped her, even as she realizes Adam could be destroyed just by being in close proximity to the man.
Auster’s other non-narrator characters, particularly Adam’s sister, Gwyn, are well-drawn, but the novel always receives a visceral jolt whenever Rudolf and Margot arrive on the scene. Fortunately, Auster paces their scenes perfectly throughout the novel, so they’re never offstage for too long, even as they threaten to disappear for good. Invisible isn’t as perfectly structured as some of Auster’s masterpieces, but in its examinations of the random events that force us to grow up faster than we might like, it finds a balance between cipher-like characters and the slippery, unknowable nature of life.