This is the 15th novel by Paul Auster, premier magician of our time. He started rather dryly, reworking the detective genre through a post-modern lens of existential doubt. As he progressed, he got deeper with complex plots and characters. His best novels, like "Moon Palace" and "The Book of Illusions," are metaphysical mysteries. His protagonists turn a random city corner, encounter a stranger and so are launched on an unexpected journey. Auster's novels explore the intersection where a chance event turns into fate. They are also self-reflexive, questioning how fiction operates, ever reminding the reader that he is engaged with an imaginary world. But they also offer rich stories, with appealing characters and compelling plots.

So, as a great fan of Auster's spellbinding and sly mind-bending works, I'm sorry to report that "Invisible" is a disappointment. The novelist as sleep walker doesn't make readers want to keep going.

Yes, a chance event becomes fate but it has no lasting consequences for the protagonist, who goes on to lead a dull and bourgeois life. Adam Walker, an aspiring poet attending Columbia University in 1967, meets a glamorous and enticingly louche couple at a party. Rudolf Born, in a rumpled white suit and a generic, forgettable face (it's how the devil often appears in European fiction, as in Mann's "Dr. Faustus") and his black-clad, heavily made-up lover Margot take him up as if he were a pet. Born, a Parisian professor but also a man of mystery (maybe a secret agent), offers to fund a literary magazine that Adam will edit.

One evening, while walking with Adam on Riverside Drive, Born casually murders a black kid who tries to rob them. To Adam's shock, he never loses his cynical aplomb. Next day, the police find the boy, who has been stabbed 11 more times than the initial cut Adam witnessed. By the time he tells the police about Born, the professor has fled the country.

Adam winds up in Paris, too, as a foreign exchange student, and runs into Born accidentally. Born is about to marry a respectable older woman, and that gives his former protégé an idea. He will befriend the woman and her daughter, Cecile, then sabotage the wedding by telling them about the murder. It's a puny revenge plot, and in any case backfires when Born has Adam arrested and deported.

In Part Two, 38 years later, Adam sends his account, which includes a torrid summer with his sister, to a former classmate, an accomplished novelist named Jim.

So now we get Jim's gloss on Adam's text as he wonders whether to believe him, plus his edited version of its last part, fragments of notes that Adam just managed to get down before he died of cancer.

Novel within a novel, questioning who is making up what; narrative voice -- the last, Cecile's -- in three tenses. But the meta-textuality seems tired here, the questions banal. And although Born is interestingly repellent, Adam, Margot and Jim are bores.

The novel covers themes Auster has used before, but merely gestures in their direction. He does not seem to be deeply invested in his novel.

Brigitte Frase is a reviewer in Minneapolis.