The unreliability of memory

In his latest novel, the mostly hopeful story of a dying man trying to make sense of his life, Paul Auster ditches his usual formalism in favour of creating engaging characters.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Paul Auster’s latest novel, Invisible, is a meditation upon the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It explores the intensity of experiences in that period, and how our responses to those experiences can shape and pre-occupy us for the rest of our lives.

The central character is Adam Walker, who we meet as a poetry student at New York’s Columbia University in 1967. Walker bumps into Rudolf Born, a French visiting professor, and his girlfriend, Margot, at a party. Born draws Walker closer to him, offering to fund a literary magazine that Walker would edit, and essentially arranging for Walker to sleep with Margot. The young Adam is conflicted, alternatively appalled and fascinated with the seemingly sophisticated but decadent Born. One evening Walker and Born are approached by a mugger, and Born stabs him to death. Walker runs from the scene, but then returns to find the body missing. Born sends Walker a threatening letter, warning him not to talk of it, and runs off to Paris.

This ends the first section of the book. In the second section, we learn that the first is in fact the fragment of a memoir. Adam is now 40 years older, and dying of leukemia. He reaches out to an old friend from Columbia, Jim Freeman, who is a novelist, and asks for help in completing the memoir.

At this point, those familiar with Auster’s works may think: ‘Here we go again.’ With Invisible, Auster has now written 15 novels, of which his most critically acclaimed and best-selling work is The New York Trilogy, a series of books published in 1985. He is best known for literary gamesmanship, using techniques that draw attention to the text itself (which some refer to as ‘intertextuality’) as well as posing philosophical conundrums. This self-referential, formalistic approach is characteristic of late twentieth-century postmodernist literature.

But there’s a difference this time. Invisible shows Auster keeping the literary devices much more under control. The story moves along at a rapid clip, and Auster’s style is crisp and riveting. The changes in narration do not lead us to lose the plot; instead he weaves a mystery we’re invited to help solve. Furthermore, Auster goes beyond formalism and creates engaging characters. It could be argued that the characters are not fully developed or sympathetic, but they are certainly not just ciphers for philosophical positions.

Adam’s story is, primarily, a study in moral education. Born is downright sinister and knows how to dangle the one thing (editorship of a literary magazine) that could tempt Walker. And Walker, being naive and unaware of the presence of evil in the world, cannot fully understand what Born is doing. After he witnesses the murder, he is wracked with guilt for not going to the police right away. He leaves for France to track down Born, seeking revenge and redemption.

In having the story take the form of a memoir, Auster adds a twist to the classic coming-of-age story. Adam is in his sixties and dying, and he is looking backwards to try to make sense of his life before he departs. He recognises that his encounter with Born has been the turning point in his life. The experience ultimately led him to abandon aesthetics and turn to a prosaic life as a lawyer trying to help the black neighbourhoods in Oakland and Berkeley, California: ‘From poetry to justice, then. Poetic justice, if you will. For the sad fact remains: there is far more poetry in the world than justice.’ Reading between the lines, it seems that Walker has overreacted to what was an intense experience of revulsion.

But Walker’s life ends before he can figure out what it meant (perhaps suggesting that is the fate of us all). His friend Jim Freeman picks up the trail, but he, too, ultimately cannot pull all the pieces together into a neat narrative. One of the issues raised by the writing of a memoir is the reliability of memory. As the novel continues, we wonder if we can truly believe Walker. Maybe he deliberately distorted the truth? Or maybe our subjectivity means that it is hard to be objective about ourselves, including our younger selves from the distance of old age?

In particular, this question of the reliability of memory is prompted by Adam’s recollection of his brief but overwhelming sexual relationship with his sister, Gwyn. The description tears at us; it is simultaneously beautiful and repulsive. But we later discover that Gwyn denies that an incestuous affair ever happened, and again, we wonder if Adam is being truthful. Even if it did happen, maybe some things are best kept private.

I found the book hopeful. Invisible suggests that the exhaustion of postmodern formalism might give way to an examination of human-centred questions, such as morality. Auster may not adequately address the questions he raises, but at least he is raising them, and in a truly engaging way.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

Invisible, by Paul Auster, is published by Faber and Faber (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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