Shadows within inhabit ‘Invisible’

By Robert Braile
December 12, 2009

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Occasionally, a novel is so masterful it leaves you breathless.

Paul Auster’s “Invisible’’ is such a novel. In it, he explores the shadowy, perilous, maddening netherworld between what we know about ourselves and others, and what we long to know, the latter invisible to us. Absent such knowledge, we tell stories that may or may not be true but affect our lives either way.

In the spring of 1967, Columbia sophomore Adam Walker meets Rudolf Born, an enigmatic visiting professor from France, and Rudolf’s alluring lover, Margot Jouffroy. Rudolf asks the aspiring poet to launch a literary magazine. He also suggests Adam and Margot have an affair, which occurs. One night, a mugger confronts Rudolf and Adam, and Rudolf stabs him once. Adam seeks help for the mugger, who is still alive, but he returns to find both men gone. The next day, the mugger turns up dead nearby with more than 12 knife wounds, and Rudolf flees to Paris to avoid prosecution.

The stabbing haunts Adam, who had vowed to live ethically after his younger brother Andy drowned while vacationing with their mother in 1957. The accident deadened their parents’ marriage and obsessed Adam and his older sister Gwyn for years.

Adam tells the police he believes Rudolf killed the mugger, but Rudolf later denies the crime. Adam then renews an incestuous affair with Gwyn, a Columbia graduate student, before leaving for Paris in the fall for a year of study.

In Paris, Adam meets Margot and Rudolf, now estranged. He also meets Rudolf’s fiancée, Hélène Juin, and her brainy teenage daughter, Cécile, who falls in love with him. But he soon returns to Columbia and graduates. He becomes a legal aid lawyer, marries a social worker, settles in California, and dies at 60 of leukemia in the spring of 2007, right after seeking advice on a draft of his memoir about 1967 from a college classmate and writer, Jim Freeman. When Jim goes to Paris that fall to learn more about Adam, he finds Cécile, now 58, and with her own story to tell, bringing “Invisible’’ to an artful end.

The question of fact vs. fiction is at the center of the novel. Its four parts, narrated by three characters, include the three chapters of Adam’s memoir. They are told in the first, second, and third person, respectively. Jim had suggested a shift to the third person based on his experience as a memoirist. “My approach had been wrong, I realized,’’ Jim tells Adam, guiding him to tell the truth. Yet when Gwyn later denies the incest, Adam’s memoir seems closer to fiction.

Relationships are just as elusive in this captivating novel. “Who knows what a person’s secret desires are?’’ Margot tells Adam in Paris, when he asks whether Rudolf offered him the job because the shady professor was sexually attracted to him. “Unless the person acts on them or talks about them, you don’t have a clue.’’

Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.

INVISIBLE By Paul Auster

Henry Holt, 320 pp., $25

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