Sticking the Landing

Last week I was a guest on The Diane Rehm Show, where I took part in a panel on Paul Auster’s 2009 novel, Invisible. Audio and a transcript of the full hour are available online, but the very brief version is that while all of us—Rehm, George Washington University creative writing teacher Lisa Page, the Washington Post‘s Neely Tucker, and myself—are all admirers of the book, we split on our feelings about its closing pages. They found it frustrating, if not comically bad; one caller got in a funny line that Auster has a way of writing the best three-fourths of a novel you’ll ever read before he disappoints you.

But I like the ending; I did when I first read the book as I was reviewing it, and I do now, having read it a second time. To summarize what’s led up to this contentious chapter (spoilers from here on out): Invisible is mostly set in 1967 and concerns Rudolf Born, a shady and increasingly malicious man with a history of intelligence work who’s unsettled the life of Adam Walker, a Columbia University undergrad. Born has dangled a few mundane temptations involving sex and money Adam’s way, but Adam grows increasingly suspicious about his benefactor. Born’s dangerousness is confirmed when he kills an assailant on the street and (Adam believes) needlessly stabs him a dozen more times. To exact a kind of revenge, Adam attempts to derail Born’s plans to marry a woman in France. The marriage doesn’t happen, but not especially thanks to Adam’s efforts; wise to Adam’s scheming, Born pulls a few strings and has the young meddler sent back to the States.

The troublesome final pages of the book are made up of a series of diary entries by Cecile, Born’s almost-daughter-in-law, as she visits Born in his haunt on Quillia, a mythical Caribbean island. “Haunt” seems to be the appropriate word here—Born, 35 years after his run-ins with Adam, is a broken man, Kurtz-like in his isolation, living in a stone house on top of a mount. It takes an hour to reach the place on foot; as if to stress its otherworldliness, the place is called Moon Hill. Born has lost none of his imperiousness, but Cecile tells us he’s turned ugly: He has:

a great medicine ball of a stomach now, a with most of the hair gone from his head, his skull reminded me of a volleyball. A ridiculous image, I know, but the mind is always churning forth its quirky nonsense, and that was what I saw when he stood up and approached me: a man composed of two spheres, a medicine ball and a volleyball. He is much bigger, then, but not whalelike, not blubbery or drooping with flab—just large.

Ridiculous indeed: Born claims to be “in perfect health,” proposes marriage to Cecile (whom he hasn’t contacted in more than 30 years), suggests she help write a fictionalized version of his memoirs, all but says he had her father killed, and sings the praises of the Cold War. Repulsed, Cecile gets out quick; annoyed, a few readers wondered why this story couldn’t resolve less absurdly. But I don’t think Auster’s goal was ever to bring Born’s evil to some sort of clean resolution—he just wants to stress its persistence, and make Born an allegory for modern-day imperialism and war-mongering without being too noisy about it. “War is the purest, most vivid expression of the human soul,” Born says very early in the novel, and Invisible is a surreal, noirish vision of what happens to a person who truly believes such a thing.

So the stranger the better, but the strangeness of Invisible‘s closing pages are in keeping with the increasing grotesqueness of Born’s character. By the end, he’s gleeful at the prospect of mass death:

Drowned cities, obliterated continents, the end of everything. You’ll still be alive, Cecile. You’ll get to see it happen, and then you’ll drown. You’ll drown with all the others, all the billions of others, and that will be the end. How I envy you, Cecile. You’ll be there to see the end of everything.

How much more contemptuous can somebody get than to cheer on the end of the world? Had Born made such proclamations in the early pages of the novel, Invisible would be an immediate turnoff; who wants to read a novel about somebody so sociopathic? But Auster gets to that point carefully. To say that war is the purest expression of the human soul isn’t particularly appealing either, but it’s an intriguing worldview—one that pulls us in as much as it does Adam. When we first meet Born, we’re stand-ins for Adam, sucked in and eager to know more. By the end we’re stand-ins for Cecile, wise to Born’s warped vision, and eager to escape it. That’s a clean ending, for Auster or anybody else.

2 responses to “Sticking the Landing

  1. Mark,

    You make some great points about the consistencies of the novel, but I think many find the ending frustrating because there is a very loose precedent for such a conclusion. Auster gets to his points carefully because he has to. As a result , it becomes too much of a story about a worldview instead of character/plot. Nothing wrong with that–especially coming from Auster–but it does take away from the novel as a whole.

    Thanks for leading me to some reconsideration.

    –jw

  2. Ever since Milton, authors have had trouble making evil characters seem less like what they are in fiction–powerful and dramatic–and more like what they are in real life–tedious losers.

    Maybe the ending was an attempt to accomplish that.

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