A surreal scene in Paul Auster’s unsettling and compelling new novel, Invisible, depicts a group of 50 or so black men and women, slave descendants living on a tiny Trinidadian island called Quillia, chipping away in the merciless sun with hammer and chisel as they reduce a field of rocks to gravel.
Far above these Sisyphean laborers, in a large stone house overlooking the ocean and hewn, perhaps, from the very same rock, dwells a French-German former professor and shadowy intelligence agent named Rudolf Born, one of Invisible’s central characters. The rock-breaking has nothing whatsoever to do with the novel’s story, and there is no connection between Born and these near-slaves, except for this: They are down here in the baking heat, and he is up there in his mountain lodge, guzzling rum punches.
This contrast is not about injustice — because Born hasn’t forced these people to break rocks for a living — but rather about its first cousin, unfairness, and in particular the inequity of the circumstances into which we are born. The question of fairness is at the heart of this novel, and in fact dominates and eventually destroys the life of its main character, a Columbia University student and promising young poet named Adam Walker.
Back in 1967, decades before his retreat to Quillia, Born took Walker under his wing immediately upon meeting him at a student party, offered him a handsome sum of money to start a literary magazine, invited him over to his apartment for sumptuous meals, and encouraged him to start an affair with Born’s sensually practiced girlfriend, Margot.
No doubt there was some other aspiring young writer at Columbia, a virgin, perhaps, living on tap water, macaroni, and Velveeta, who himself would have considered it unfair that Walker, and not he, was the recipient of all these gifts. But for Walker, each of the presents, when opened, explodes in his face.
For Born is an embittered, fascistic, alcoholic near-psychopath; bad enough. Worse, he is a murderer. Out walking one night together on the Upper West Side, talking about the literary magazine (which, we later learn, will die aborning) the two men are accosted by a teenaged, gun-wielding mugger whom Born stabs in the stomach and not only leaves bleeding but, after Walker runs off for an ambulance, apparently stabs again and again. The first thrust was, inarguably, self-defense; the next dozen were not.
If everyone’s life is marked and determined by a single turning point, Walker is unlucky enough to own this violent event as his. From this moment forward, held back initially by a threatening note from Born, Walker is tormented by his late and inadequate report to the police, which allows Born to escape to France (and from there, many years later, to the island of Quillia.)
The sheer unfairness of Born’s getting away with murder eats at Walker, who makes half-hearted attempts to get him to pay for his crime, even trying to turn Born’s post-Margot fiancee and her daughter against him. The daughter ultimately resists, but years later, she finally comes face to face with the echoing void in Born where others possess a soul. (It is from her perspective, revealingly, and not Walker’s, that the rock-breakers are observed.)
Eventually, Walker’s anger at Born conflates with his self-hatred; as Walker states in a written reminiscence of that time, “(t)his failure to act is far and away the most reprehensible thing I have ever done, the low point in my career as a human being. Not only did it allow a killer to walk free, but it also had the insidious effect of forcing me to confront my own moral weakness, to recognize that I had never been the person I had thought I was, that I was less good, less strong, less brave than I had imagined myself to be. Horrid, implacable truths.”
What he considers to be the larger injustice of the Vietnam War, and his native decency, lead him to spend his life as a lawyer representing the indigent and as a community activist, but, “in the long run,” Walker broods, “I don’t think I’ve accomplished much.”
He marries happily, and it is not entirely without significance, in the context of those times, that she is a black woman. But she dies too young. He publishes one book of poetry with “an obscure small press based in Manchester … with sales in the neighborhood of 50”. He never writes another book, except for a stab at a memoir, entitled 1967, that recounts his obsession with Born.
In his own view, this handsome and athletic and intellectual Jewish golden boy (who resembles Philip Roth’s equally tragic “Swede” Levov from his novel American Pastoral) has half-wasted his life, not so much because he happened to meet Born, and happened to witness the encounter with the teenaged mugger, but because he allowed the event to chip away at his youthful pride and sense of self-worth. (And yet, it must be remembered, his disillusionment drives him not to alcohol and drugs, but to altruism.)
At a time in his life when he is facing down his own mortality, Walker sends the manuscript of his memoir — which also includes the story of a second obsession, a very transgressive and strangely beautiful sexual affair that may be nothing more than Walker’s fantasy — to a far-more-successful writer. These memoir sections compose the bulk of the novel’s narrative.
Habitual readers of Auster will not be surprised to learn that this other writer resembles Auster himself. He is portrayed here as having been one of Walker’s casual friends and fellow students at Columbia — perhaps one who was envious of Walker’s apparent good fortune in meeting Born, and certainly one who was helplessly in love with Walker’s transcendentally beautiful sister.
Oddly enough, though, in a novel that is about unfairness, there is no evident envy on the part of Walker of his healthier and more accomplished old acquaintance. But that is also fitting: Walker’s great gift, and his downfall, is his simple decency. As the successful writer visits Walker’s sister and step-daughter, and the daughter of Born’s fiancee, we learn as much about Walker in the manner in which he is remembered as we do from Walker’s own reminiscences.
In neither the memoir sections, nor in the sections narrated by the successful novelist, do we encounter notably dazzling prose. To be blunt, as a writer of sentences, Auster isn’t anything special; reading this book after reading Roth or Richard Yates, for example — or, to draw upon a couple of comparisons that are even more unfair, Bellow or Nabokov — one is aware of how neutral and unremarkable, and occasionally even plodding, Auster’s prose can be.
What Auster is, instead, is a spellbinding storyteller, sometimes thanks to, and other times in spite of, his post-modern narrative trickery. Even more important, he is a writer of high moral seriousness. Indeed, this novel, like some of his others, could best be described as a moral suspense story. As such, it succeeds brilliantly; as we follow Walker’s struggle with himself and with Born, and put our own consciences to the test as we imagine what we would have done in Walker’s place, the story not only grips us, it leaves discernible marks afterwards.
On his first meeting with Born at that long-ago party in 1967, Walker asked him if he was related to the medieval Provencal poet Bertran de Born, who was depicted by Dante as wandering around Hell decapitated, “carrying his severed head by the hair as it sways back and forth like a lantern”.
This imaginary punishment might be considered rough poetic justice for a poet who wrote, in verses that Walker quotes:
Let every well-born man think only of breaking
Heads and arms, for better to be dead
Than alive and defeated.
I tell you that eating, drinking, and sleeping
Gives me less pleasure than hearing the shout
Of “Charge!” from both sides, and hearing
Cries of “Help, Help!,” and seeing
The great and the ungreat fall together
On the grass and in the ditches, and seeing
Corpses with the tips of broken, streamered lances
Jutting from their sides.
The fate of the historical de Born is not known, and the last part of Rudolph Born’s life is left indeterminate, though we understand his character from the very beginning, when he tells Walker that he couldn’t be related to de Born because his name has no de; “(y)ou need to be noble for that, and the sad truth is I’m anything but noble.” This is the barest hint of the self-loathing and desperate loneliness that eventually overcomes Born in his stone house in Quillia; unlike Walker, he may not be able to feel the pain of others, but has no difficulty feeling his own.
So while “the inequity of the circumstances into which we were born”, and in particular the circumstance of being born without the inconvenience of having a conscience, may seem to “favor” Born, the story makes very clear which of the characters will be mourned and which one merely reviled — by himself as well as those who know him.