Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the crowd was, as regular readers here might remember, one of my two Bah Humbook virtual gifts from Stu of Winston’s Dad. I ordered it on Christmas Day for my Kindle – after all, it was a Christmas present – and have now read it. Wow, what a read, but how to write about it?
Perhaps I’ll start by quoting something near the end of the novel:
There are people who are capable of recounting their lives as a sequence of events that lead to a destiny. If you give them a pen they write you a horribly boring novel in which each line is there for an ultimate reason: everything links up, there are no loose ends.
This is not such a novel. Things don’t link up, there are loose ends, and it’s both chronological and not. It is in fact a metafictional work. It has the old story-within-a story-within-a-story structure, the self-consciousness about fiction versus reality, all of which could be a bit old hat, except it isn’t. The first person narrator is a somewhat frustrated novelist in Mexico City. She has two children – the boy and the baby – and a husband. To make her novel, an autobiographical one, interesting, she has her husband leave her. (Wish fulfilment? we wonder.) Reading over her shoulder, he says:
Why have you banished me from the novel? What? You wrote that I’d gone to Philadelphia. Why? So something happens.
This fictional husband sometimes takes up the story, telling of his life in Philadelphia and of missing his children. Our narrator reminds us that “it’s only a novel, none of it exists” and says she is writing “A horizontal novel, told vertically”, and then “A vertical novel told horizontally”, and still later “Or a horizontal novel, told vertically. A horizontal vertigo”. Word play, you see! I can imagine the fun the translator had with this – and from what I can tell, she seems to have made a good fist of it because there’s a lot of humour here, humour that is linguistic, verbal, and that requires you to keep your wits about you.
Meanwhile, interspersed with telling the story of her current life in Mexico City and the “fictional” life of her husband in Philadelphia, she tells of her past when she worked in New York City “as a reader and translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing ‘foreign gems'”. There are a few “digs” at Americans in the book and one follows this statement, when she continues, “Noone bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is viewed with suspicion!” I can see why Stu, with his love of translated literature, related to this work! This story, the one about her time in NYC, is full of unusual but colourful characters flitting into and out of each other’s lives, houses and beds, all told through little, sometimes interconnecting, vignettes which mostly serve to illustrate the contrariness of existence.
There’s Moby, for example, who “forged and sold rare books that he himself produced on a homemade printing press”. “My husband reads some of this”, our narrator writes, “and asks who Moby is. Nobody I say. Moby is a character.” Is he? Your guess is as good as mine. Suffice it to say that Luiselli plays these games with us from beginning to end, all the while challenging us to consider what is fiction, what is real. Is any of it real, she seems to be asking? She writes, “Writing this is coarse. But reality is even more so.” There are ghosts, blindness, and shadows; people and objects suddenly slip from being substantial to being insubstantial. And gradually our narrator, herself, seems to merge with the obscure Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen, about whom she is writing, while running into (or does she?) other poetic luminaries like Federico Garcia Lorca, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound.
There’s a fantastical element to the story, but it’s not the same as Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s magical realism. It’s more slippery, if that makes any sense at all. While Gabriel Garcia Marquez expects us to comprehend “the magical” as part of it all, Luiselli seems to be saying the opposite, suggesting that perhaps “nothing is”.
This all might sound rather depressing, but it’s not. It is in fact a fun read. And while the novel is, I think, about the challenge of living an artistic life in which the things of the real world threaten to overwhelm the imagination, the final word is positive – albeit ironically so. You’ll have to read it yourself though to find out what that is.
Faces in the crowd
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
London: Granta Books, 2012
ISBN: 9781847085580 (Kindle ed.)