Riffle through the novels of Paul Auster and you will see how steadily a sense of irreality imposes itself. His oeuvre is replete with writers, who may create characters only to suffer confusions of identity with them. His work returns ever to themes of the elusiveness of human nature and the insufficiency of language to investigate the matter (or even to faithfully record experience). In "City of Glass," from his New York Trilogy, he cites Lewis Carroll and raises Humpty Dumpty's question of who is the master, language or us?
"Well, words aren't everything," the budding young poet Adam Walker says early in Auster's new novel, "Invisible," only to be told that is a "strange comment from a man who fancies himself a writer." Walker's respondent, a professor at Columbia University's School of International Affairs, is a casual acquaintance he meets at a party when the professor and his girlfriend approach the solitary, corner-hugging Adam.
Professor Rudolf Born may or may not shortly be proved a murderer -- the reader will have to jury this one, after exposure to Adam's eyewitness account of the circumstances and Born's later recap of them (both are plausible and neither contradict the known "facts"; a killing did occur). What ensues is prototypical Auster, with switchbacks in plotting that throw into question the nature of his principal characters, even that of the good (and by now former) poet with the Edenic name at the center of the novel. Besides murder we may have a case of incest as well, between Adam and his sister, Gwyn, a beauty who possessed "the face that launched a thousand hopes."
"Invisible" is largely a coming-of-age story related by Adam at some 40 years' remove. Told in the form of a memoir, covering the jolting events of his life in 1967 (his days as a Columbia student, and an aborted year abroad in Paris), Adam's tale does not come to us complete or unadulterated: struggling with his writing, he has mailed parts of it to a former Columbia classmate, a now-famous novelist named James Freeman, asking for advice. It is through Freeman's largesse that we read Adam's composition, as unexpected events leave Freeman trying to verify the truth of some of Adam's claims. He even upgrades the last portion of Adam's book, crafting full sentences from the author's fragmentary notes. Is this original sin?
Freeman assures us that "despite my editorial involvement with the text," in the deepest sense as storytelling, the final section of the book "was written by Walker himself." If so, the would-be memoirist has fashioned a narrative triptych that moves progressively from first-person to second-person to third-person points of view, quite a feat for a stymied writer now 60 and in the fight of his life against leukemia. Freeman's light investigative travels (to Oakland, where Walker lives, and to Paris) and his conversations with Gwyn greatly complicate the fervor of youth that permeates Adam's version of events: moral indignation on the one hand and forbidden but unabashed joy on the other.
'Madness and folly'
A quotation from Ecclesiastes appears in the third section, titled "Fall," of Adam's memoir, "And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly." Adam jots it in the margin of a poem he is writing, for the words feel as if they were his own. He is recounting the time of his student sojourn in Paris, but nearly his entire story has been put forth in that spirit too, including the preceding section, "Summer," which detailed a monthlong affair with his sister when he was 20.
Adam warned Freeman beforehand by telephone that his "Summer" manuscript had some "rather brutal stuff, I'm afraid. Ugly things I haven't had the heart or the will to look at in years." And yet in the actual telling he is self-satisfied, and looks back upon a single night of non-coital sex that he and his sister had when they were teens as "the best night of my life." Six years later, when they begin repeating themselves but up the ante in a physical sense, he tells Gwyn, "I felt blameless then, and I feel blameless now . . . we walked away from it without any scars."
Auster's Adam uses the second person here, distancing himself from the action and substituting the reader by proxy, to increase the creepiness and our discomfiture. "You and your sister have always talked, the two of you have been engaged in a complex, ongoing dialogue since childhood," is offered up as if in explanation, with sexual behavior but a minor exten- sion of that. This is the same Adam who worked as a page in Colum- bia's Butler Library stacks and remarks, deadpan, that "little by little you come to understand that the library is good for one thing and one thing only: indulging in sexual fantasies."
A great many things in "Invisible" may be flights of fancy or madness, then, on the interpretive level where Auster's novelistic tension resides. Rudolf Born, a "rumpled dandy" with a penchant for white linen suits, is an enigmatic character, a heavy drinker given to political rants who appears by turns violent and chivalrous, even in testimony other than Adam's. But was he a black-bag operative for the French government? A multiple murderer? (His onetime girlfriend, Margot, cautions Adam about the people Born knows -- cabinet ministers and army generals -- and suggests that he be avoided, to no avail.)
The first section of Adam's memoir, "Spring," forms the opening of "Invisible," and it contains the witnessed murder. Adam's fear caused him to delay notifying the police, and afterward, Gwyn "listens to you tell the story, again and again the same story, the obsessive story that has wormed itself into your soul and become an integral part of your being." Strip away the specifics, and there may be a glimpse here into Auster's uber-story: "Every life is inexplicable," he wrote in his novella "The Locked Room," and no matter how many details pile up, "the essential thing resists telling." That's his witnessed murder, but novel by novel, damned if he won't call the police.
Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of the Nation.
Paul AusterFrances Coady/Henry Holt: 310 pp., $25Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times