Author Paul Auster poses for a portrait in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood in New York, Nov. 9, 1995.

Author Paul Auster poses for a portrait in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood in New York, Nov. 9, 1995.

For this month’s Readers’ Review, we selected a novel by the contemporary American writer Paul Auster. “Invisible” – set in New York and Paris – unfolds in four parts with changing narrators and perspectives. It’s a crime thriller, a sexual exposé and a coming-of-age story. It begins in the intellectually charged atmosphere of Columbia University in 1967. A student and aspiring poet befriends a volatile and mysterious professor. Shortly after, shocking events occur. They haunt the younger man for the rest of his life. We’ll talk about truth and imagination – and how memory affects us all.

Guests

  • Mark Athitakis writer, editor, critic and blogger.
  • Neely Tucker staff writer for The Washington Post magazine; author, "Love in the Driest Season," a memoir of adopting a baby in Zimbabwe.
  • Lisa Page president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and creative writing teacher at George Washington University.

Transcript

  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. "Invisible" is Paul Auster's 15th novel. Many consider it his finest work of fiction. The book explores the intertwining nature of memory and imagination and how a single dramatic act can have far reaching consequences.

  • 11:07:22

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio for this month's Readers' Review, book critic and blogger, Mark Athitakis, creative writing teacher, Lisa Page, Washington Post staff writer, Neely Tucker. And throughout the hour we'll take your calls, 800-433-8850. Whether you've read this book or not I think you're going to be interested. Lisa, how'd you feel about this novel?

  • 11:08:00

    MS. LISA PAGEWell, I was blown away by it. I couldn't put it down and I've been told that that's the effect Auster has on people. This is my first Paul Auster so it was a great read.

  • 11:08:14

    REHMAnd you, Mark?

  • 11:08:15

    MR. MARK ATHITAKISI really enjoyed it. I think it's one of Paul Auster's best novels. I think that often times Paul Auster can be very hit and miss. He can fall into some metafictional rabbit holes but I think this is one of his most focused and engaging books.

  • 11:08:31

    REHMNeely, help me out here.

  • 11:08:33

    MR. NEELY TUCKERIt's just great characters and Auster always writes with a lot of psychological acuity. One of the real gifts that he has is he can write about the intellectual lives of fictional people extremely well. And sometimes it would almost seem it would be hard for the story to keep going that way. But it does because it's sort of a thriller that unfolds here about exactly what happens. But that's based on everybody's interior lives and how they relate to each other. So he does that extremely well.

  • 11:09:03

    REHMOkay. I gotta say, in the fourth part I think Paul Auster goes kinda nutsy.

  • 11:09:11

    REHMI think that the fourth part of this novel makes no sense at all.

  • 11:09:20

    PAGEBut I would argue that that's part of the structure that he's playing with in terms of form, 'cause the fourth part is also written in the form of a diary. And that, right there, is always an unreliable form. So I think that's a point he's trying to make.

  • 11:09:37

    TUCKERI wouldn't dispute you at all. I was really going along with the first three bits...

  • 11:09:41

    REHMJust going along would be kind.

  • 11:09:42

    TUCKER...and this is the, okay, he's gonna really bring home the bacon and here's gonna be this big setup scene. And there wasn't any really setup scene. It was just sorta the guy was nuts and she said, well, you're nuts and then that was sort of it.

  • 11:09:54

    REHMAnd she goes into this -- I mean, we're getting way ahead of the story, and maybe we better go back to the beginning. Who is Adam Walker?

  • 11:10:05

    ATHITAKISAdam Walker is a 20-year-old Columbia University student who has aspirations to be a poet and a literary figure. And he falls under the curious spell of this older gentleman named Rudolf who has some past...

  • 11:10:20

    REHMRudolf Born.

  • 11:10:21

    ATHITAKISRight. With -- who has some past history in French intelligence, something -- some very shady parts of the history, but...

  • 11:10:28

    REHMOr does he?

  • 11:10:29

    ATHITAKISWell, we don't know, we don't know. But we do know that he's very seductive to Adam, that he dangles a few things that are very appealing to him. He offers to...

  • 11:10:37

    REHMIncluding his...

  • 11:10:38

    ATHITAKISHis girlfriend…

  • 11:10:39

    REHM...live-in girlfriend.

  • 11:10:40

    ATHITAKIS...and second cousin, which becomes an interesting plot point later on as well. So...

  • 11:10:46

    REHMSo what happens in the novel at Columbia in the spring of 1967?

  • 11:10:55

    TUCKERWell, what happens is that Adam is offered a couple of things, some more immediately enticing than others. And one of them is to take up the helm of a new magazine, which Rudolf very graciously agrees to underwrite. Apparently -- he says in the book I believe that he's inherited some money. And he says, you can set up this magazine. It's yours to run. Adam puts in a proposal, they're going and talking.

  • 11:11:18

    TUCKERAnd then there's a very traumatic moment in which the central plot point of the entire book, they're walking through a park, they're accosted and Rudolf apparently stabs their assailant to death. It's very striking because all Adam sees is he sees him stab him once and he runs off for help. Later when he comes back no one is there. The next day in the paper -- a couple of days later he reads that this young man's body was found stabbed 12 times, which is a lot more than he saw. So he becomes convinced that Rudolf Born has stabbed this man 12 times and literally gotten away with murder.

  • 11:11:53

    REHMDo you think Rudolf Born is evil, Lisa?

  • 11:12:00

    PAGEOh, I think he's immediately set up that way from the very beginning when he talks about man at his best when he's at war. I may not be quoting it quite right, but at this party where they meet he talks about that being man at his ultimate. He clearly is -- his seduction of Adam Walker is evil in the way that he pulls him in and plays with him around the live-in girlfriend. The fact that Adam Walker is young and innocent and hungry and wanting to be a poet, Rudolf Born is a professor at Columbia and, you know, lauds this over.

  • 11:12:41

    PAGEYes, he's evil. And he's certainly -- his identity in terms of whether or not he's in the secret service, whether he's a double agent, all of these things are carried through the book.

  • 11:12:53

    REHMYou know, it's fascinating because shortly after Adam Walker meets Rudolf Born and Margot, Born's live-in girlfriend, and they have Adam to dinner, then Born says, well, I have to go out of the country. I have to go to France. And Adam and Margot get together for a full five-day tryst. When Born comes back Adam feels terribly guilty but Born in effect says, oh, don't worry about it. I set you up. I don't really care about her. You know, Neely?

  • 11:13:44

    TUCKERWell, you kinda want everybody to behave differently at that point. You want Adam to have the courage of his convictions and says, look, I love her now and, you know, I'll fist fight you...

  • 11:13:53

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:13:53

    TUCKER...in the street over this woman. But he really doesn't. And then you want Rudolf to sort of be enraged about it, or at least have this (unintelligible) it's all okay, we are French. And that's not even it either. He's just this evil sort of guy who says, yeah, you know, I kinda thought she was bad news anyway so I left you kids alone. And yes, you did what I thought so whatever.

  • 11:14:15

    ATHITAKISWell, he lives to unsettle people's lives. I mean, you know, the phrase that he says very early on is -- and this is the quote -- "war is the purest most vivid expression of the human soul." But that is...

  • 11:14:24

    REHMWar.

  • 11:14:25

    ATHITAKIS...that's his philosophy.

  • 11:14:25

    REHMWar.

  • 11:14:26

    ATHITAKISYeah. And, you know, he likes to create battles with people. And I think this is to an end of proving his superiority. And we could talk a little bit later about that last section, but he's high on the mountaintop. He is this controlling figure...

  • 11:14:38

    REHMTrue.

  • 11:14:38

    ATHITAKIS...and I think that's how Auster wants us to look at him.

  • 11:14:40

    REHMWell, earlier on, of course, after the murder of the young man in the park, Adam Walker makes what I think is a fatal mistake right from the start, in that he does not go to the place immediately. He waits. And in that period of waiting Born, not only skips town, he skips the country. And then nobody is going to be able to get him back from Paris to stand trial.

  • 11:15:22

    PAGEI also think it's important to bring in the issue of race here, and that the fact is that this young man is a young Black man who...

  • 11:15:32

    REHM...who is murdered.

  • 11:15:33

    PAGE...who is murdered...

  • 11:15:33

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:15:34

    PAGE...by Rudolf Born. And Rudolf Born is a visiting professor at Columbia. He has an international connection and this boy has nothing. And in fact is probably...

  • 11:15:46

    REHMAdam Walker has nothing.

  • 11:15:47

    PAGEAdam Walker has nothing and the murdered boy, Sedrick Williams, who's only about 17, really has nothing and is mentioned briefly as found in the park with 20 stab wounds. And I -- frankly I have to say that that's an issue throughout this book, including the fourth section that you don't like, Diane, the issue of race, of people of color being invisible. That's one of the things that's going on in this book.

  • 11:16:12

    REHMYeah, what else did you make of the title "Invisible," Neely?

  • 11:16:18

    TUCKERWell, that's the one thing that I had highlighted I wanted to read.

  • 11:16:22

    REHMGood.

  • 11:16:22

    TUCKERIt's only mentioned one time in the book that I could find it. It's (unintelligible) ...

  • 11:16:25

    REHMNo, twice, twice, twice.

  • 11:16:26

    TUCKER...I'm being corrected by my closer readers. The -- and that's writing in the first bit and it's when Adam Walker befriends a man later on -- or actually it's a friend of his from college who apparently goes on to be a very successful writer. And Adam is stuck wanting to write about this experience in 1967. That's one of the central things in the book is that he revisits 1967. But what the -- his writer friend tells him when Adam becomes stuck is that he had the same problem in an earlier novel.

  • 11:16:59

    TUCKERAnd he says, my approach had been wrong. By writing about myself in the first person I had smothered myself and made myself invisible and made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for. I needed to separate myself from myself to step back and carve out some space between myself and my subject, which was myself and therefore return to the beginning of part two and begin writing in the third person.

  • 11:17:20

    REHMBut see, that's what leads me to wonder whether the whole story becomes a figment of Adam Walker's imagination.

  • 11:17:35

    ATHITAKISWell, we have some evidence of that. There is the -- the second section involves an affair that Adam has with his sister and that we learn later on that the sister denies it flatly and doesn't understand why he would concoct such a tale. So this is something that Auster does. He wants to unsettle our notions of, you know, what is fact and what is fiction.

  • 11:17:56

    ATHITAKISBut to the question of what invisible means here, I think it goes back to Rudolf Born. I think it goes back to these sort of -- these sickening forces that find their ways into people, and the kind of power that he has to create this sort of like moral corrosion in people.

  • 11:18:13

    PAGEYeah, there's another section that mentions invisible, if I could just read that quickly.

  • 11:18:17

    REHMHow long is it?

  • 11:18:19

    PAGEIt's three sentences.

  • 11:18:20

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:18:21

    PAGEThis is when Adam goes to law school and he's writing to his friend. The idea was to do some good work. To work with the poor, the downtrodden, to involve myself with the spat-upon and the invisible and see if I couldn't defend them against the cruelties and indifference of American society.

  • 11:18:40

    REHMLisa Page. She's a freelance writer, creative writing teacher. Short break, right back.

  • 11:20:03

    REHMOkay. Here is our first e-mail as we talk about Paul Auster's novel "Invisible," which many critics, including our own Mark Athitakis, has called Auster's most successful work of fiction. This email says, "The only Auster novel I can truly say I appreciated was "Moon Palace." Each new one that comes out I read hoping I'll enjoy it as well as that earlier work, and each time I've been disappointed to varying degrees. They seem pointless and build to a final page that ends nowhere." Mark.

  • 11:20:54

    ATHITAKISI think that can be a fair point. There is one recent novel of his "Oracle Night" which I've described as the least -- the worst novel by a writer worth reading. But, you know, I think he's had a very interesting run and I think a lot of it is very interested in -- comes out of his interest in politics and domestic life. I mean, I think "Man in the Dark" is an excellent political novel, I think "Sunset Park," his last novel, is a very strong story about family. He'd had -- he'd -- people complain that Auster doesn't have strong emotional attachments to his characters. But I think, of late, he's changed that.

  • 11:21:27

    REHMWhat about his own family, his own attachment to his own family, his own background?

  • 11:21:36

    ATHITAKISWell, his very first book was actually a nonfiction book called "The Invention of Solitude," which is a memoir about the death of his father. And, you know, I think if you wanna make an argument about Paul Auster having a sort of strong emotional feeling and being able to write about family, that is a good place to start. You know, so he does, you know, think very closely about family relationships.

  • 11:21:57

    REHMDo we have any hints of his own family relationships in this novel?

  • 11:22:04

    ATHITAKISWe have something about his academic background. He was a 20-something Columbia University student in 1967. But I think that's where the story begins and ends here, at least in the context of this novel.

  • 11:22:15

    REHMHere is an email from Allison, on the other hand, who says, "I'm a huge Auster fan particularly 'Timbuktu,' which is the one I interviewed him for and 'Mr. Vertigo.' I read 'Invisible' when it was published and for the first time in decades was so engaged I could not put down the book." So, you know, I think there are an awful lot of widely held feelings here, Neely.

  • 11:22:49

    TUCKERWell, it's interesting that the writer mentions "Mr. Vertigo," which is probably my favorite. I don't know that it's the best, but it's one of my favorites of Auster's. And it's because I think it's so different. It's out of context or it's out -- it's much different from a lot of his other stuff, which tends to happen mostly in New York, which tends to mostly be about writers, which tends to mostly involve a very chance meeting which then, you know, it takes on a life of its own. And everything evolves out of this one chance meeting.

  • 11:23:17

    TUCKERAnd I found "Mr. Vertigo" really charming. It's different. It's about an orphan in post-depression America right before the depression. And I just really found that to be just -- maybe because it was just a little bit different.

  • 11:23:28

    REHMThere is one other personal factor about both Adam and his sister Gwynn. They've lost their little brother who drowns when he is seven. And apparently they get together each year -- the family sort of gets together each year to celebrate the young boy's life. But the mother and father really have a hard time with the loss of that child.

  • 11:24:04

    ATHITAKISAbsolutely. And this leads into what is -- what's more difficult or troubling sections of the novel I would suppose you'd say which is when Adam and Gwyn carry on an affair. And I think for me, reading this the second time, I was interested in how well Auster sort of prepares you for this. He mentions very early on that Rudolf and Margot are second cousins. Then he talks just about a lot of the sexual fixations that Adam has and once you start getting into this sort of emotional despair that he's feeling at the loss of his brother.

  • 11:24:38

    ATHITAKISSo it feels off-putting, what it consists of here, but it doesn't feel so repulsive that you cannot read it.

  • 11:24:45

    REHMDo you agree, Neely?

  • 11:24:47

    TUCKERYeah, no. I thought he had -- I really admired how he set that up because at the -- end in the beginning what he's -- he mentions that, you know, my brother drowned when he was very little, and he just mentions it . And as a writer you...

  • 11:24:57

    REHMHe just mentions it, yeah.

  • 11:24:58

    TUCKERHe just mentioned it so there's not much more to it. And then, later, you say, well, that's, I guess, all we're gonna hear about it. But then about 100 pages later, you really come into that had created this crater in his life and his sister's life. And it's because of that depth of feeling that they shared about their lost brother that creates this emotional space that they had for this affair. I...

  • 11:25:22

    PAGEYou made the argument earlier that actually the affair also comes out of witnessing the murder of Sedrick Williams. That Adam is so distraught over this period -- this happening as well that he's vulnerable to this relation -- isn't that what you said?

  • 11:25:35

    ATHITAKISYeah, and I think there's another thing to think about as well is that one of the first bits of evidence that Adam has that Rudolf is not trustworthy is that when he gives him a bunch of information about his family about, you know, you have these parents in Jersey.

  • 11:25:45

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:25:46

    TUCKERAnd, you know, you lost a brother. And Adam is very put off by that.

  • 11:25:50

    REHMWell, not just put off. I mean, he's stunned. Where does this guy get all this information? And that's when he really does begin to believe he's an agent for a foreign government or, you know, maybe the Russians, maybe France, maybe he's a double agent. I mean, I -- well, I did get totally taken in with the first three portions of the book. This last portion – and, again, racial elements enter into that last portion, Lisa Page, when he is taken -- that is she -- oh gosh...

  • 11:26:41

    PAGECecile, Cecile.

  • 11:26:42

    REHMYeah, she is the daughter of Helain (sp?) . And Helain is a woman who is apparently about to marry Born. And Adam Walker finds out about this and he wants to stop this marriage from taking place because he thinks Born is evil. So he thinks he's going to get revenge or retaliation? I mean, how does he go about doing this?

  • 11:27:21

    ATHITAKISWell, he wants to prime Helene (sic) and Cecile to inform them of how evil Rudolf is. But I think in the context of the novel it means to paint Adam as falling down a rabbit hole that he really ought not to go down. He talks to Margot and she tells him, don't do this. Stay away from this. You'll wind up as crazy as I am. And, you know, I think it's more evidence of just the sort of power that Rudolf has over people's lives because it proves to be somewhat ineffectual. He winds up breaking Cecile's heart. I mean, it doesn't really accomplish -- Rudolf does not wind up marrying, but it's not necessarily a product of Adam's efforts.

  • 11:28:02

    ATHITAKISSo it seems like, you know, the message there is that he shouldn't have expended that energy. It wasn't worth it to kind of feel that sort of anger and hate and vengeance flow through him.

  • 11:28:12

    REHMMark Athitakis. He's a writer, editor, critic and blogger. Lisa Page, freelance writer, creative writing teacher at George Washington University. Neely Tucker, staff writer for the Washington Post Magazine, Author of "Love in the Driest Season", a memoir of adopting a baby in Zimbabwe." If you'd like to join us as we talk about Paul Auster's novel "Invisible" I invite you to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Feel free to send us a Tweet or join us on Facebook.

  • 11:29:07

    REHMI do see that this death of Sedrick Williams, the young black man really does affect Adam Walker in ways that may, in fact, drive him a little crazy. What do you think, Mark?

  • 11:29:27

    ATHITAKISYou know, I mean, I think this book is a long series of things that kind of slowly drive Adam crazy. I mean, I think that is -- you know, one thing that happens in the scene is that, you know, you're not sure if Rudolf is doing this intentionally. That's sort of the vibe that you get from it. Like, you know, he's actually looking for somebody to murder, the way that Auster describes it. Just it -- you know, he likes to write in an (word?) tone. He likes accessing that sort of thriller like language. But there's something that's kinda flowing underneath here that suggests that Rudolf is just -- you know, he's just out for blood. You know, that...

  • 11:30:01

    REHMAnd that scene is so brief. They're confronted on the street by this young Black man who wants to rob them. And all of a sudden Born pulls out this blade. Now, what's a Columbia University guy walking around with this blade for? And then immediately stabs the guy right in the stomach and then drags him over into the bushes somewhere. I mean, the whole scene can't take more than a page, and yet it's filled with drama.

  • 11:30:47

    TUCKERYeah, it's the central event of the book. Adam Walker's never the same after this his entire life. You can argue that. I mean, he's very distraught. He's attuned to the racial aspects of this and later on spends his life -- he gives up poetry and becomes a lawyer more or less for impoverished Black people in Oakland. He marries interracially. I mean, you can read as much as you like into that about what effect this had on Adam.

  • 11:31:14

    TUCKERSo it is the transformative event in the book. It only takes a page or so. And I think it's the best evidence in the book that Rudolf really is a double agent, -- he's a secret agent because he pulls out a switchblade and uses it very effectively. And he tells the kid, look, you don't wanna do this. And the kid says, give me the money. And he says, okay, I told you not to, and then dispatches him pretty efficiently.

  • 11:31:38

    REHMYou agree that that is the central event of the book.

  • 11:31:42

    ATHITAKISOh, absolutely, absolutely. And, you know, I think it is interesting also that, you know, he took the career path that he did, that, you know, this whole experience with Born put him off his entire life path, that his ambitions to, you know, run a literary magazine. He wouldn't wanna do that because that has the sort of this horrible kind of taint of working with Rudolf Born in it. And that, you know, he wants to commit himself to a moral cause. And I think what happens in this entire year for him is that he loses his rudder in being a moral person.

  • 11:32:12

    ATHITAKISYou know, there's -- in the second section with his sister, he talks about when his brother died. He stood up in front of a mirror and said I am going to be a good person. I'm going to be a moral person. And it completely collapses when he begins this affair with his sister.

  • 11:32:25

    REHMSo why does Born take such an interest in Adam Walker, Lisa?

  • 11:32:31

    PAGEWell, his sister believes that he's sexually interested in him. That he's fallen in love -- or infatuated with Adam Walker when he meets him. Even as he sort of plays with the idea of, Margot really likes you so I'm going to invite you over to dinner 'cause Margot is worried about you. The truth is, he's interested, he's attracted. That's the sister's theory. And I think it's possible but I think that there are a lot of things possible in this book, Diane, and I think that that's what Auster's really messing with here is the fact that you don't know.

  • 11:33:03

    REHMMy mind.

  • 11:33:04

    PAGEYeah, you don't know. You don't know what is real, what is true. Invisible, so many things are invisible here.

  • 11:33:13

    REHMAnd in all our lives. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." For some reason, I think it's because you all are so interesting, we haven't had any callers yet. I am waiting to hear from people who want to talk about Paul Auster's novel "Invisible." Call us now, 800-433-8850. Then the question becomes was Adam Walker truly seeking revenge when he went to Paris to try to stop this marriage when he inevitably knows he's gonna run into Born somehow?

  • 11:34:03

    TUCKERYeah, and it's interesting that Born finds him, which again sort of tells you that he says, well, what are the odds I'd ever run into Born in Paris? I have this opportunity to go study abroad. Adam translates poetry, translates things from French. He wants to become very fluent so he says, you know, I'll go to Paris. I'm never gonna run into this guy. And he's there like 15 minutes and Born appears, you know, saying, well, look who's here. So -- and again, gives you the idea that Born is -- knows much more than is apparent in the book. That he is -- not a lot happens with chance with Rudolf Born you get the idea.

  • 11:34:37

    REHMDo you agree?

  • 11:34:38

    ATHITAKISYeah, and I think there is something almost a little bit comical here but kind of typical of Paul Auster, Somebody says very early on. Just because a thing is unlikely to happen doesn't mean it won't. But, you know, that's something that's kinda like Paul Auster's motto. So the idea of you know, trying to escape Rudolf Born, but, you know, him kind of integrating himself into his life again is just very much in keeping...

  • 11:34:58

    REHMAnd Lisa, why did Margot stay with him as long as she did?

  • 11:35:05

    PAGEWell, she is sort of a not very clear figure. She's troubled obviously 'cause she ends up committing suicide. She's troubled in some of the descriptions of sex that she -- her sort of depravity, if you will. She's all over the place, is what I'm trying to say. And her staying with Born, I think she's attracted to him, she's into him. But she's not real rooted. She calls herself crazy anyway. I mean, she's beautiful. That's as far as I got.

  • 11:35:44

    ATHITAKISI think, you know, in some ways there's something about a person who claims to understand how the world works that is seductive to various people here. That, you know, he's -- he knows how the world works in literature, so that's something that Adam is attracted to. Knows something about geopolitics even though he winds up having these screaming matches with Cecile later on when they disagree about French politics in 1968. But, you know, he carries authority. He carries knowledge, understanding, strength. These things are all very seductive...

  • 11:36:13

    REHMSeductive.

  • 11:36:13

    ATHITAKIS...and very hard to escape.

  • 11:36:15

    PAGEBut the women in this piece altogether I kept trying to figure out what is going on.

  • 11:36:19

    REHMYeah, right.

  • 11:36:20

    PAGEWhen you ask about Margot, well, I'm also asking about the sister. You understand how he is all in love with his sister, but you don't understand how the sister is all in love with him. And the only woman you really get inside is Cecile and with her diary in the end, which is miniscule anyway. You don't get the motivation behind the women.

  • 11:36:39

    TUCKERThe one thing about Rudolf Born is that if you -- he's the one truly competent person in the book. He is the one person who pretty much can do what he...

  • 11:36:47

    REHMEvilly competent.

  • 11:36:48

    TUCKEREvilly competent, but nonetheless, he's the guy who can get -- who makes things happen. You get the idea that the other people are all sort of bouncing off things that happen to them. Rudolf Born makes stuff happen and, I mean, he's -- obviously I think he's almost the central character in the book, that Adam is sort of a -- Adam takes up most of the space. He's the one who tells the story. But the real central presence to the book is Rudolf.

  • 11:37:12

    REHMNeely Tucker. He's staff writer for the Washington Post Magazine. Lisa Page, she's a creative writing teacher at George Washington University. Mark Athitakis. He's writer, editor, critic and blogger. We're talking about Paul Auster's novel "Invisible." I see the lines are filled. When we come back, we'll open the phones. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:03

    REHMThe book we're talking about for this month's Readers' Review, Paul Auster's novel "Invisible." And let's open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Windham, N.H. Good morning, Jerry, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:26

    JERRYGood morning, Diane. I'm wondering how -- you're saying the fourth section was just -- no, couldn't go there with it. And the panel, how long do you stick with a book before you put it down? Or would it occur to you to say, I'm not gonna read the fourth section?

  • 11:40:47

    REHMOh, no. Once you get into it, I mean, there's no putting it down. But the other problem with it is that you -- I'm speaking just for myself. I realized as I was reading this how utterly ridiculous the fourth section seemed to me. Now, Mark, I know you felt very differently.

  • 11:41:18

    ATHITAKISI was willing to tolerate it, I think, more than anybody else in this room. And I think, you know, there is a certain preposterousness to it, right? I mean, like, you know, here he is on this Caribbean island where, you know, he is -- you have to climb up. You know, there's no road to get up to where he was.

  • 11:41:33

    REHMAnd this poor 50-year-old woman. She hadn't been told she's gonna have to climb.

  • 11:41:38

    ATHITAKISRight, right. I think you have to read this as just a symbolic representation of just what are the consequences of living a life, being the sort of evil person that Rudolph Born is that he is -- you know, he's meant to be described as sickening, repulsive. You know, Cecile goes to have dinner with him and he orders -- this is a hot Caribbean island and he wants this, like, thick gravy filled meat sort of meal. And, you know, it's meant to be off-putting and it's -- you know, he proposes to her. I mean, this is sort of the end of the line for somebody like Rudolph Born. This is, you know, you are utterly disgusting.

  • 11:42:12

    REHMWhat do you think, Lisa?

  • 11:42:14

    PAGEYeah, I had a different feeling about this section. I thought that Auster really did want you to understand that Born probably murdered Cecile's -- or tried to murder Cecile's father. He was turned into -- I guess he's a vegetable.

  • 11:42:29

    REHMYeah, right.

  • 11:42:29

    PAGEHe's hospitalized. I also thought Cecile's response to the servants -- there are three servants serving two people for dinner, that her response to the black people on the island chipping away at the rock and that sound will never leave her memory, is political. I really felt Paul Auster was being political there. He's talking again about the invisible people who don't have all the money and the power that...

  • 11:42:59

    REHMWho do all the work.

  • 11:43:00

    PAGERight.

  • 11:43:01

    REHMWho do all the work.

  • 11:43:02

    PAGEYeah, I thought that.

  • 11:43:03

    REHMNeely.

  • 11:43:03

    TUCKERI kinda wanted -- I guess I'm just old fashioned. I just wanted a little bit more of a payoff.

  • 11:43:09

    PAGEYeah.

  • 11:43:09

    TUCKERThey would come all this way.

  • 11:43:10

    REHMMe, too.

  • 11:43:10

    PAGEMe, too.

  • 11:43:10

    TUCKERWe wanted the stuff.

  • 11:43:11

    REHMMe, too.

  • 11:43:11

    PAGEYeah.

  • 11:43:11

    TUCKERThat you've set it up. Poor old Adam, I wanted Adam to be redeemed. I wanted something to happen there that Adam as he's dying is -- I don't know if we've mentioned this part of the book. But the -- he's writing this memoir that he doesn't get to finish. This poor man has had his life destroyed by this chance meeting with this guy. He did really nothing wrong. He tried to, you know, avenge that. It didn't work out. He lived the rest of his life doing good work for the poor. He tried to write this memoir and he died.

  • 11:43:39

    REHMAnd then gets leukemia.

  • 11:43:40

    TUCKERAnd then gets leukemia...

  • 11:43:41

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:43:41

    TUCKER...and dies. Give the man something.

  • 11:43:45

    REHMLet's go to Val in Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning.

  • 11:43:51

    VALGood morning. I have I guess a very different take in that as a psychotherapist it struck me that Born has to be a sexual sadist also and that his evilness, if you get into that whole realm why a woman would stay -- why she stays with him, that can be very seductive. It's power. I mean, evil is very powerful.

  • 11:44:23

    REHMI agree with that.

  • 11:44:25

    ATHITAKISOh, no, yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, when you look at the cast of characters in this novel, they're all people who are to some degree easily manipulatable. I mean, you know, Adam is a young man. You know, Cecile is a young woman when he falls into her orbit. So we don't know much about Rudolph with people of his own, you know, when he's going to head to head with, like, you know, maybe his fellow intelligence agents. You know, but he lives a life, you know, I think it's just that he's tortured people, that, you know, he lives to have opportunities to lorded over other people. And I think that certainly plays into his romantic relationships.

  • 11:44:55

    REHMNow, here's an email from J.T. who says, "I've been a Paul Auster fan for many years now. I feel each time out he writes the best three-quarters of a novel you've ever read. The fourth quarter leaves you wanting to throw the book at the wall. Still that three-quarters is so engrossing, so perceptive, that you're happily willing to read the next book. He writes each book like a man who is looking for something, can see it in the distance, but never really finds it. 'Invisible' is no exception."

  • 11:45:40

    TUCKERI think he would do just great if he would just let himself go for once and just write. He may be the best crime writer in America if he would just say what I am -- you mentioned that he likes to do some (unintelligible) stuff. A lot of his books turn out one central act of violence. There's one act of violence in the book. So I think he would just be fantastic if he just turned it lose and said, I'm just writing a crime book here and, you know, with all the conventions, I'm gonna stay within the genre, but do my thing. I would love to read that book.

  • 11:46:08

    REHMBut, you know, I mean, this one -- what was the movie with Ronald Coleman? "Shangri-La." You know, I mean, this climb up into the wilderness, I mean, totally put me off.

  • 11:46:28

    ATHITAKISWell, you know, I think maybe, going back to something that Neely was saying, if we want the satisfactions of a novel, how much Auster maybe wants to challenge us to say that maybe we don't want that. 'Cause it was toward the end where Born wants Cecile to help him write his story but to make it a novel. And you can feel him like he's rubbing his hands together, yes, it will be a thriller. Thrillers are so wonderful. Isn't a wonderful word? But, you know, real life doesn't have those sort of satisfactions to it. I mean, I think Auster is...

  • 11:46:56

    REHMTrue.

  • 11:46:56

    ATHITAKIS...trying to push away from, you know, that sort of conventional ending, that sort of -- I don't think Auster (unintelligible)

  • 11:47:00

    REHMMm-hmm.

  • 11:47:01

    ATHITAKISI don't think he's challenged just to have -- from wanting a happy ending. We want resolution. But, you know, it's not gonna come in the form that we want where Adam is redeemed necessarily or where Rudolph is put in jail.

  • 11:47:12

    REHMAnd, Lisa, from your perspective as a creative writing instructor, you feel that...

  • 11:47:21

    PAGEWell...

  • 11:47:21

    REHM...it was extraordinarily well done.

  • 11:47:24

    PAGEI do. And I think that for what he's trying to do which he's trying to play with the structure of storytelling. He's trying to play with perspective. With the unreliable narrator, with point of view, with form, all of those things are going through this novel in the course of his trying to write a memoir. So it's almost somebody called like Russian dolls inside, Russian dolls. And that's the point. That's the point. It's not definitive. It's not -- you don't get to leave and say, oh, this is what happened.

  • 11:47:54

    REHMYeah, but the problem is he's playing with my mind.

  • 11:47:57

    PAGEOh, I understand.

  • 11:47:59

    REHMAnd that's the part I don't like. Let's go to Jacksonville, Fla. and to David. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:48:09

    DAVIDGood morning. I have not read the book. But just listening to the discussion, it almost seems like it's an allegory of our cultural, political society today. I mean, you know, the best part kinda takes our unconscious and brings it into the present. And talking about, you know, the sociopath or lack of empathy, the hangers on from further back and cultural touch stones from the past coming forward, the competence and incompetence of followers, and a few incompetent people that seem to be competent but are not, just seems like the time of our society in politics today.

  • 11:48:53

    REHMInteresting. Mark.

  • 11:48:55

    ATHITAKISYeah, it's somewhat illegal to read the author's life too much into the novel that you're reading, but, you know, we know that Paul Auster is a very politically engaged person. He is a part of the Pan American Center. He has spoken out against torture. So I think there's certainly -- his books are very much in form like this. His previous novel "Man in the Dark" is very involved in themes of torture and the war in Iraq and the way that political discourse happens in America. So I think that -- you know, I think it's fair to read it as an allegory.

  • 11:49:25

    REHMIs he particularly American in his writing or does he have an international appeal, Neely?

  • 11:49:37

    TUCKERWell, I'm gonna cheat and say both. I think there's obviously an American nature to what he does. But does that appeal to people in other countries? Sure. I don't think it's exclusive to the United States because a lot of what he writes about are ideas and times. And the focus is often very small. It's just a couple of people and a couple of situations with larger events in the background.

  • 11:49:58

    REHMYeah, well, if so, he doesn't paint us very prettily. Let's go to Manchester, Mich. Good morning, Doris, you're on the air.

  • 11:50:08

    DORISGood morning, Diane. Thank you for having me.

  • 11:50:10

    REHMSure.

  • 11:50:11

    DORISI have a question about the incest in the book. And I wondered how your panel feels about whether it actually occurred because the author seemed to interject a little question about whether it was real.

  • 11:50:27

    PAGEWell, that's the unreliable narrator aspect of this book. According to Adam Walker, this actually happened. According to his sister, Gwen, who is interviewed by the editor, it never happened. It was all his imagination. And by the way, that question comes up in other ways in this book as well.

  • 11:50:47

    REHMYou mean his imagination or what...

  • 11:50:49

    PAGEHis imagination, what really happened.

  • 11:50:52

    REHMWhat really happened.

  • 11:50:54

    PAGEAnd what -- and again, I mean, this is -- the unreliable narrator is a literary construct that is used throughout literature. But here it's like Auster's asking us to understand that there is no truth, there is no objectivity, or truth is your version and here's my version, or truth is what I want truth to be, or truth is my imagination, all of these questions. And again I bring that back to the title of "Invisible" in the sense that you can't see it. You can't always verify it. You want to. That's why you want a definitive -- that's why you want a definitive ending here.

  • 11:51:35

    TUCKERI would put my $2 bet would be that it happened. That was my...

  • 11:51:39

    REHMThat's your $2 bet.

  • 11:51:40

    TUCKERThat was my $2 bet. You have to believe that you have a dying man who's writing a book, right, that's not gonna be seen until apparently after he's dead. I don't get his -- and she says everything else in the story happened. Everything else is...

  • 11:51:55

    REHMDoris, what do you think?

  • 11:51:59

    DORISWell, that makes sense.

  • 11:52:01

    REHMBut, I mean, you've read the novel I presume, so...

  • 11:52:06

    DORISYes.

  • 11:52:06

    REHM...what did you think?

  • 11:52:08

    DORISI loved the novel. I think it was great.

  • 11:52:10

    REHMOkay. But did you think...

  • 11:52:11

    DORISBut I thought -- oh, whether -- well, I believed it at first. And then when she denied it, I began to wonder about it.

  • 11:52:20

    DORISBut on the other hand...

  • 11:52:22

    REHMYeah, but wouldn't you deny it?

  • 11:52:24

    PAGEOh, absolutely. I mean, absolutely.

  • 11:52:26

    PAGEShe's got a husband, she's got children, she's got grandchildren.

  • 11:52:29

    REHMAbsolutely, absolutely. That's why it becomes, you know, even that much more questionable as to who is telling the truth here. And I am when I say you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Paul in Orange, Park, Fla. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:52:54

    PAULGood morning. Thank you very much. I'm always looking for good authors, great authors actually to read and I appreciate the detailed information you gave me about this particular story. It's definitely gonna be coming in from Amazon in the next few days. I think people wanna hold authors to some sense -- some standard of reality versus unreality. And does this -- does the construct, the does the plot of this novel fit into my construct of reality? Well, get over it. I mean, yeah, all...

  • 11:53:24

    REHMI'll try.

  • 11:53:26

    PAUL...all fiction is based in part on real life and all real life contains fiction. And each of us has our own little fictional interpretation of real life. Another example is dreams. If you dream at night when you're asleep, you can dream anything and it's okay. But if you dream in the daytime, it's called hallucinating and you're considered to be psychologically unbalanced. I read because it explores the deep parts of the human mind and helps me better understand other people and myself. So here, you know, five stars for the author and your show, of course, so...

  • 11:54:07

    REHMThank you. All right. Well, I do hope you enjoy the book. To Peterborough, N.H., good morning, Paul.

  • 11:54:18

    PAULGood morning, Diane. I had two questions or two points. One was about the sister, Gwen's relationship and her denial of that. I'm not sure if she denied it so much as just didn't want it to come out because it was -- would affect her family, her immediate family, her children and she preferred that that didn't come out, so preferred that she used some other name.

  • 11:54:46

    PAULAnd then the other thing was the ending. I disagree with you about the ending. I think it was kind of interesting and it reminded me in some sense of "Shalimar the Clown" in that it was -- it pertained some degree of rebellion on the part of the people who are most downtrodden and that Born didn't prevail in his last attempt to take -- to control the life of somebody else. She came off the mountain and rejected his absurd proposal which was kind of his last attempt to control somebody else and in effect showed the limits of his power. And I don't think you discussed the broader implications of this and what the larger themes that Paul Auster was trying to explore here.

  • 11:55:51

    REHMWhat do you think?

  • 11:55:53

    ATHITAKISYou know, as far as the ending, I think the novel that he mentioned was "Shalimar the Clown" by Salman Rushdie, which I haven't read, but it's interesting to hear that parallel. You know, I think Rudolph in the end is kind of an absurd, kind of helpless character. You know, there's something he says very viciously and it's just a very quick bit where he tells Cecile, you know, you'll drown with all the others, all the billions of others and all that will be the end. How I envy you, Cecile? You'll be there to see the end of everything. And, you know, there's that old Rudolph Born viciousness, but it's also just, you know, he feels childish when he says something like that.

  • 11:56:25

    REHMThe only thing I have to say about that is that I think it would've been more realistic had it taken place in a hotel room in Paris rather than in a cave on a Caribbean island with strange people around to lead her up the hill. The novel we've been talking about is titled "Invisible" by Paul Auster. Thank you all so much.

  • 11:56:56

    TUCKERThank you.

  • 11:56:57

    REHMI enjoyed your comments. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:57:02

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is drshow@wamu.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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