Sunday, April 22, 2012

the last book I read

Invisible by Paul Auster.

It's 1967, and aspiring poet Adam Walker is in the middle of his studies at Columbia University, partly to further his poetical ambitions and hone his creative and literary skills, but also to avoid the draft. At an academic drinks party he meets the enigmatic European Rudolf Born and his girlfriend Margot. Their lives bcome intertwined: Born offers to give Adam creative control of a new literary magazine he is proposing setting up and funding, and Adam and Margot start a clandestine affair.

Not clandestine enough, as it turns out, as Born rumbles them and confronts Adam with his knowledge. He seems pretty relaxed about the whole thing, though, so it's something of a surprise when Adam and Born are confronted by a mugger on the corner of Riverside Drive and West 112th Street and Born whips out a switchblade and stabs their assailant in the stomach, fatally it later transpires.

Needless to say the magazine deal is off after all this, and Adam, after receiving some threatening communications from Born, delays reporting the incident to the police until after Born has fled back to Europe, something that causes him years of guilt.

Forty years of guilt, as it turns out, as we then zoom forward to 2007 to discover that the first part of the novel is the contents of the first section of a manuscript that Walker, now dying of leukaemia, has sent his old college friend Jim for a literary evaluation. After an exchange of letters between the two, part two soon follows. Far from being a continuation of the business described in the first chapter (I'm struggling hard to avoid a series of The Born Identity puns here) this is a description of Adam's last summer in the USA after graduating and before leaving for Paris to take up a scholarship there. Most of the summer was spent sharing an apartment with his sister, Gwyn. Adam and Gwyn became very close as children after the death of their younger brother, and in their early teens shared a night of guilt-free sexual experimentation very similar to the hypothetical one described here and here. Well, the temptation of flat-sharing proves too much for the flimsy taboo of incest to withstand, and they're soon fucking like crazed weasels.

Adam and Jim arrange to meet, but Adam dies before this can happen, leaving Jim with the skeletal notes of the third section of the book. This describes Adam's time in Paris, where he by chance runs in to Margot and Born again, seperately this time, rekindling his relationship with Margot but also hatching a plan to foil Born's plans to marry wealthy widow Hélène Juin, by the fairly simple method of befriending Hélène and her daughter Cécile and then spilling the beans about the stabby New York incident.

We then discover that Jim has been in contact with Adam's sister Gwyn, and that she has read the first three sections of the book, and agreed to their publication as long as all the names and locations are changed. Furthermore we learn that what we've just read is the result of that process, so in other words Adam Walker wasn't really called Adam Walker, he didn't really go to Columbia, etc. etc. We also learn that Gwyn categorically denies ever having indulged in any incesty shenanigans with her brother (hence her desire for anonymity).

Jim has also been in touch with Cécile Juin, and the last section of the book is another transcription of a manuscript, this time a portion of Cécile's diary describing her last encounter with Born, now an elderly and overweight recluse living on a remote Caribbean island. Having agreed, after an exchange of letters, to travel to the island to meet Born, Cécile is somewhat taken aback when Born first asks her to marry him, and subsequently (after she turns him down) to help him write a memoir of his life, a life with some murky secrets including clandestine work for the French government and just the possibility of having been a double agent for the Russians as well. Not thrilled by a lengthy stay on a remote island taking Born's dictation (ooer), Cécile refuses, and leaves. The end.

It's easy to see how this novel would be knuckle-chewingly infuriating to some - we never get much in the way of clear resolution of any of the plot points, and there are many: did Born really murder the mugger in New York? Did Adam and Gwyn really have a stolen summer of transgressive happy sexy joy joy time, or was the whole thing a fantasy of Adam's? And was Born really (as he suggests) responsible for the car crash that left Cécile's father in a vegetative coma? There are so many different layers of narrative from so many different people (Adam, Jim, Gwyn, Cécile) that it's impossible to know what's "real" from what's not. Presumably this is Auster's point, though: none of it is actually real, after all, it's just a novel. And there's absolutely no reason why we should care about, or feel slightly cheated by, the revelation that (for instance) "Adam Walker" wasn't the "Adam Walker" character's "real" name, because he was never real to begin with.

You have to be good to get away with all of this metafictional rug-pulling without it just being annoying, and it's remarkable how compulsively readable this is, even while you know you're just being fucked with at various points. At Swim-Two-Birds, Christy Malry's Own Double-Entry, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Kleinzeit, Invisible Cities and Slow Man pulled off similar tricks. Inevitably these sort of shenangians tend to polarise the critics: some loved it, some didn't, and some wrote lengthy hatchet jobs dismissing Auster's entire body of work. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that I enjoyed it, more so than the only other Auster book I've read, The New York Trilogy, which was much more explicitly arch and experimental.

I should also add that I picked up my almost-new paperback copy of Invisible a couple of weeks ago for the princely sum of ten pence in a charity bookshop in Chepstow. I conclude two things from this - firstly that whoever owned it first was less impressed than me by the metafictional playfulness, and secondly that I frickin' love charity bookshops. At a cover price of £8.99 that's a whopping 98.9% discount, and a spare £8.89 for me to spend on crack and whores.

Lastly, mention of Invisible Cities prompts me to the observation that this is the first book in this now quite lengthy series whose title is a part of the title of another book in the series. The only other pair that might qualify would be G. and Good As Gold, and you'd have to disregard the full stop which is an integral part of G.'s title, so I don't think it really works.