Paul Auster has created what amounts to his own, self-referential fictional world over the years, and Invisible is packed with typical Auster tropes. This is his 13th novel, and at times he seems to be both celebrating and lightly mocking his own oeuvre. There is the oddly detached male narrator roaming New York; a random dramatic incident that alters the course of a life; ruminations on the nature of writing, language and identity; multiple narrators; stories within stories; and general intertextual gadding about. And, as ever, fragments of Auster himself seem to feature – in this case, divided into two characters.
Invisible concerns the young Adam Walker, "a tormented Adonis", a notably gorgeous and intellectually gifted Jewish American born in the same year as Paul Auster, who studies at the same university. Or does it? And is he? And does he? As so often with such playful meta-fiction, we are increasingly uncertain. As is later revealed, there are different takes on the past, as well as projections of desire that warp or reveal, and Invisible is not so much a tale told by an unreliable narrator as a series of harmonising and clashing testimonies.
However, this makes the novel sound more arcane than it is. It is so well paced that it rocket-charges the reader through all its games and structural devices, and is a tantalising page-turner of great – if deceptive – lucidity. If we follow the initial and most persuasive version of the story, we are in Manhattan in 1967, where Adam Walker, Columbia undergraduate and aspiring poet, meets visiting professor Rudolf Born and his girlfriend Margot. The subject of Vietnam is ever present, and Born is a man of contradictory and frequently explosive political opinions. Born flatters Adam by proposing that he finance a literary magazine to be edited by the gifted student, and so begins an alliance that sees Adam engage in an affair with Margot and witness the increasingly unstable Born murder a young man who threatens him.
The book segues within moments from dinner party chatter to calculated slaughter. This is the incident on which the novel turns, and which skews Adam's life, its legacy of guilt and fury determining the direction he will take. Born, "a burnt-out soul, a shattered wreck of a person", evades arrest by decamping to Paris. Shortly thereafter, Adam follows, clearly subconsciously impelled to seek retribution, and soon he's back in Margot's bed and on Born's radar. Born, with his "blur of sophistication and depravity", is such an extravagantly creepy character, given to brilliance, manipulation and rage, that both his presence and absence cast a shadow over the entire novel. Adam's plot to exact revenge on him is so ill devised that it fails to be entirely convincing.
The story is unexpectedly taken up in 2007 by an acquaintance of Adam's at Columbia, who is now a famous author. Enter Paul Auster Mark II (possibly). Decades are covered in a sketch: the happily married Adam Walker has never achieved literary success, working instead in legal aid as a result of his role in Born's escape from justice, and he is now writing his memoir as fast as he can before he dies. In the chapters and notes he sends to the author, he writes about the death of his brother in childhood, and his own consensual sexual relationship with his sister, an episode that is later reinterpreted by the sister herself.
With the satanic Born still at large, a desperate need to know – that primitive but vital fictional engine – sends the reader scurrying to a conclusion that is more satisfying in terms of its ideas than its emotional resolution. By this time, the voices of the two possible Paul Austers have merged into one, the tale returning to the first person via the second and third, the momentum of menace increasingly powerful. Some of our assumptions come clattering down around us in a strangely satisfying way and, in exposing the mechanics of his storytelling, Auster paradoxically achieves an intensely felt authenticity. This is a fascinating and highly accomplished novel.