Mark Flowers's Reviews > Invisible

Invisible by Paul Auster
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Jan 06, 2010

really liked it

James Wood had a rather overwrought take down of Paul Auster (in reference to the new novel, Invisible) in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago (although it does begin with a pretty hilarious parody of Auster's standard plot):

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics...

Woods arguments against Auster's fiction seem to be essentially three:
1) His prose itself is overly mired in detective fiction boilerplate:
"He says things like 'Your ass will be so cooked, you won’t be able to sit down again for the rest of your life,' or 'We’re still working on the stew” (about a lamb navarin), or “All I have to do is pull it out of my pants, piss on the fire, and the problem is solved.'"

2) He is insufficiently "postmodern":
Eighty per cent of a typical Auster novel proceeds in a manner indistinguishable from American realism; the remaining twenty per cent does a kind of postmodern surgery on the eighty per cent, often casting doubt on the veracity of the plot.

3) He relies overmuch on narrative holes and cliches: "'I see something in you, Walker, something I like,' he says, sounding oddly like Burt Lancaster in 'Local Hero,' 'and for some inexplicable reason I find myself willing to take a gamble on you.' For 'some inexplicable reason,' indeed: Auster anxiously confesses his own creative lack."

To take these objections in reverse order (and again, in reference to the current novel under analysis: The third objection displays a doubly troubling lack of close reading on Wood's part. First, in this particular case, it is not at all clear at the moment, or indeed by the end of the novel whether or not Born ever intended to "take a gamble" on Walker, or whether he was playing a convoluted game with him.

This is, however, beside the point when you have read further into Auster's work and realize that his *main* theme, to which he returns again and again, beginning in City of Glass is that chance is the overriding force in life and that absolutely *everything* happens for "inexpicable reasons." One may disagree or not with Auster's worldview, but it is clearly a central belief for the author a book called "The Music of Chance" and it seems churlish to hold him to a standard which he never claims to uphold.

My response to Wood's second objection dovetails off of this one. I agree with Wood: Auster is not a "postmodern novelist" in the sense of a metafictional guru like Pynchon or Barth. Invisible, in fact, contains next to nothing that could not have been achieved by premodernists like James (cf. The Turning of the Screw). Some of his other novels, it is true, have shown more commitment to a metafictional stance (esp. the New York Trilogy), but at heart Wood fails to see the distinction between the literacy technique of metafiction (often identified with postmodernism) and the philosophical construct of postmodernism.

It is this latter which interests Auster. Auster is not especially concerned with deconstructing the text and the author (though those things sometimes attract him). Rather, his central preoccupation is with the postmodern belief that nothing is truly knowable, and indeed that chance plays an inordinate role in life. These are themes which Auster pursues in all of his novels, regardless of the extent to which the texts themselves conform to "metafiction." Thus, to chide Auster for being insufficiently "postmodern" is to essentially misunderstand postmodernism as simply a literary event, rather than a philosophical idea.

I have to admit that Wood's first complaint does come home to me: it is true that Auster's prose can be infelicitous and distracting at times, and I certainly noticed it as I read Invisible. But I found something interesting: The novel is told by (at least) three narrators, at it was only the primary narrator, Walker, who was an egregious example of this infelicitous writing. This is interesting, because his character has in fact not written fiction or poetry for some thirty years. Freeman, the other primary narrator is a working novelist and shows far less interest in the "detective fiction" cliches Wood finds so objectionable. This tells me that with this novel, at least, Auster may have been making a conscience effort to write in a poor prose style in the Walker sections. This doesn't necessarily make reading it more fun, and it doesn't excuse some of his earlier novels, but it is interesting none-the-less.

Also on this point, I think it is important to reiterate that Auster is more interested in ideas than style. Again, Wood (or I) may disagree or agree with this emphasis, but it is undoubtably a choice on Auster's part. I could easily take issue with some favorite of Wood's for being insufficiently plot-driven, or not sexy enough, but these would be invalid arguments, since they ignore the intent of the novels. The same can be said of Wood's attack on Auster: he has a specific type of novel he would like Auster to write: highly metafictional, with finely wrought prose, and believable cause-and-effect events. Auster, on the other hand is interested in conveying postmodern philosophical ideas, thorugh purposely cliched narratives that place primacy on chance and coincidence.

While I think Auster has mastered this better in other novels (specifically Book of Illusions, Timbuktu, and the New York Trilogy), there is no doubt that Invisible is an excellent entry into his body of works.
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