Home » criticism, Fiction, Monthly Cover

The Selves in Ourself

By (May 1, 2014) No Comment

FacesintheCrowdFaces in the Crowd
Valeria Luiselli
translated by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House, 2014

Axion: I’m going to need your help tucking into this one. It describes itself as “a dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart,” and I don’t know about that last bit but dense and porous it is. It’s a short novel that ought to feel fleet (look at all the white space) but nonetheless seems to plod.

Majoron: That’s unfair and I’ll explain why in a minute, but we should gloss the plot before anything else?

Axion: Plot? Which strand to grab first? There seem to be a hundred, only half real. When does being a hundred stories become being no story at all, just undifferentiated emotion?

Majoron: Nonsense; story is a process, not a waxwork. And besides, there are plenty of traditional story elements here. We begin with an unnamed autobiographical narrator, I’ll call her Valeria2, to distinguish her from the author, who writes odd notes in her journal at odd hours. The book is a collection of those notes. Valeria2 is busy with her two young children (a boy and a girl) who alternately delight and stifle her. Their father is an architect and all four of them live in an old house in Mexico City.

Axion: But what’s he like? Is he patient and understanding or is he a suffocating bastard? Does he read the notes over her shoulder or doesn’t he? I can’t make it out.

Majoron: Patience. When Valeria2 was in her early 20s she lived in Harlem, working as a researcher for a small translator of Spanish literature. On one of her trips to the library she discovers the letters and poems of real-life poet and diplomat Gilberto Owen. She pitches them to her publisher (he’s anxious to find “the next Bolaño”) but Owen is too obscure. Perhaps because she identifies so strongly with Owen, or perhaps because she has made such good friends with a forger of deluxe editions, she invents and “translates” a manuscript. So for one reason or other she finds herself forging translations of Owen’s. The ostensible forger is famous American post-imagist poet Joshua Zvorsky, a thinly veiled Louis Zukofsky, author of the fascinating but inscrutable long poem That (a thinly-veiled A). The forgeries are accepted for publication, provoking a crisis.

Axion: That’s where it didn’t feel psychologically realistic to me. Why would she suddenly decide she didn’t want to have anything to do with them? Especially when her job is on the line? I suppose I didn’t feel as though I knew enough about her to make that moment fictionally plausible.

valeria-luiselli-008-208x276Majoron: Well I think because by then she’s reached a different stage of puzzling through her identity. She’s decided to fictionalize Owen’s life, make a novel out of it. Owen can do all of the things now that he never did when he was flesh-and-blood, can finally be her Owen. He hadn’t known Federico Garcia Lorca well, though they both lived in New York in the late 20s. Now they’re good friends, and even found a society together to explore the work of the fictional Joshua Zvorsky. Homer and Langley Collyer show up, and Nella Larsen and Duke Ellington, and assorted luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, like in notes for a good old-fashioned historical novel. These fragments of the new novel appear here and there among what we’re reading, so that we’re often not quite sure whether it’s Valeria2’s story we’re reading or Owen’s. Sometimes that’s clear right away and sometimes not until we’ve read a few lines.

Axion: Yes, and their lives begin to overlap, edges blur, etc. That’s when the book gets metaphysical and that’s what unnerves me. “There are people who are capable of recounting their lives as a sequence of events that lead to a destiny,” she writes, and Valeria2 clearly isn’t one of them. In the novel she’s writing, Owen has a girlfriend who may not be real (Lorca doesn’t seem to see her). Is the narrator unreal as well? Meanwhile, Valeria2’s husband who may or may not have been reading these journals and novels over her shoulder departs for Philadelphia. This is announced in a moving and beautiful passage that packs all the pathos of a novel but combines it with all the precision of an essay:

My husband went to Philadelphia today. I supposed it was to be expected. Months and years had piled one on top of the other for this moment to arrive. First, the mutual persecution. Hounding one another until neither has a centimeter of air. Conceiving an infinite hatred of the other. Not so much boredom (that would have been to remain at his side for twenty years and end up sleeping in separate beds). Not so much the contempt (the inadequate size of his hands, the smell of his sleeping body, the taste of his sex). But the hatred. Breaking him, emotionally decimating him again and again. Allowing oneself to be broken. Writing this is coarse. But reality is even more so. Later, the moral accusations. The list of the defects of the accused, always accompanied by the tacit list of the virtues of the accuser. Our final hours together were predictable: the temperature of the arguments rising, the almost comic melodrama of the play beginning. Faces, masks. One shouting, the other crying; and then, change masks. For one, two, three, six hours, until the world finally falls apart: tomorrow, this Sunday, next Wednesday, Christmas. But in the end, a strange peace, gathered from who knows what rotten gut. It was a single gesture that broke me—that finished breaking me: his cry of joy when he had closed the front door.

But then we find out, only a few pages later, that he hasn’t left after all. He’s still in Mexico and the passage above was a pure flight of invention. Does she really feel tortured and bored by the relationship or is she inventing? Is this a description of how she feels only part of the time? Or is it the truth after all? Is the idea that he stayed with her, that he’d always meant to, even after wryly reading this passage – is that the real lie? “My husband doesn’t read anything I write anymore, it no longer matters to him, it no longer matters.” Was the book for his eyes after all, a way to reconcile them, or to reconcile them to the truth?

Majoron: Your problem here is that you’re trying to nail the story down too concretely. “Perhaps it’s right that words contain nothing, or almost nothing,” Luiselli writes. ”That their content is, at the very least, variable.” The book is, firstly, a collection of observations, images, and pensées, but secondly a very serious study of what she calls “the idea of living in conversation with the dead.” Owen is dead, but he too was a Mexican living in New York, he too felt estranged from the centers of culture. Their lives overlap, really do blur.

Axion: Yeah but no. Because then she describes her husband’s journey to Philadelphia as one in which he may encounter “Owen, who is perhaps his future ghost in Philadelphia, his future life.” Well is Owen his ghost or hers? It matters.

Majoron: But this is a novel of ideas and of sensation, not of social realism. Remember how Ronald Sukenick wrote that what mattered in contemporary fiction was “not characterization, but consciousness struggling with circumstances”?

Axion: You’re going to bring up Robbe-Grillet next in 3…2…1…

Majoron: No, Robbe-Grillet doesn’t apply here. I don’t think characters are “only puppets” but I think you ought to be as patient with post-avant fiction as you are with more conventional narrative.

Axion: I’m fine with stories that aren’t stories, and I even enjoy them. I liked that Lance Olsen book we read the other day, Anxious Pleasures, the one where in an essay-in-the-book-about-the-book he writes:

Nor do I understand why people seem to believe that texts in general should be more rather than less accessible.

Whatever we may think of when we use that word, texts in general should be just the opposite. They should be less accessible, not more. Why? Because texts that make us work, texts that make us think and feel in unusual ways, texts that attempt to wake us in the midst of our dreaming, are more valuable epistemologically, ontologically, and sociopolitically than texts that make us feel warm, fuzzy, and forgetful.

It just seems at times as though Luiselli never met a metaphysical conceit she didn’t like. And I don’t think this tendency necessarily plays to her strengths. In fact, I thought some of the strongest writing here was in the last third of the book, where Owen’s story predominates. Like that bit where Lorca is described as “like a Narcissus who’d read Freud but, instead of being horrified, had been moved.” Yes, of course, Valeria2 is largely an invention, but the world through her eyes is less eccentric, less absorbing than the world through Owen’s, as though the traditional tools of fiction were there for a reason, as though they were working for her.

Majoron: But there are such wonderful moments earlier that could only have been discovered through the hyper-consciousness of a self-conscious narrator. Like when Valeria2 and her roommate visit that party of trustafarian expats. Valeria2 is looking at paintings of women’s veined feet when the little rich boy comes up behind her:

These gimcrack paintings are mine.

Who do all the feet belong to?

My ex-wives.


No pro … Do you have a card?

(That’s what he said: “pro.”)


The young lady has no card!

(He was one of those people who speak with exclamation marks.)

Here’s mine … if you’ll let me … I’ll paint you something …

(He was one of those people who speak with dot-dot-dots.)

Axion: You don’t find it forced? Okay, well what about all the apologizing the novel does for itself? Is that required now, that novels include postmodern versions of apologies to the reader? “A horizontal novel, told vertically. A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within.” It reminds me of that line in Reader’s Block where Markson writes “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.” For all the world as though we weren’t already reading the damn thing, couldn’t see what was happening for ourselves.

Majoron: But it’s a story about a story being told, a narrative about narrativity. Who is the I who speaks? Was I really lost and lonely in New York? Well, now I live in Mexico and I feel stifled. So am I someone who “deep down … didn’t like anything” or do I just lack the machinery to process all these loud ghosts? “All the characters are dead,” Valeria2 writes of the book she’s writing, “but they don’t know it.” I find that eerily beautiful. And I like the bits where it takes its own piss out, just like the Peter Matthiessen we wrote about last month. There’s that scene where Owen stands in the background at his ex-wife’s book-launch party and rolls his eyes at “poetry, the breakdown of identity, life in exile, and who knows how many more criollo clichés.”

Axion: You’re not going to convince me there isn’t one trap-door too many here. But I will say I liked the engagement with Ezra Pound, the way people kept meeting one another in the subway, as though the whole book were a reading of that short poem. “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” And I do enjoy the question—never directly posed—about whether she’s writing a book about Owen or he’s writing one about her.

Majoron: Yes, and it’s a novel that doesn’t insult your intelligence. And we all have these scraps and fragments of life that don’t seem to fit anywhere. We all have clamoring ghosts. Why not make a book on the theme? Why not, once you’ve done that, throw a bag of tricks at it?

Axion: Well, when you put it like that, you sound pretty sound. You make me sorry I didn’t write the thing myself.

Majoron: Good. And of course the whole thing is probably having a conversation with Latin-American literature that we don’t know the first thing about because we haven’t read enough of it.

Axion: Well you can’t read everything.

Majoron: Maybe you can’t.

John Cotter
is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly and author of the novel Under the Small Lights (Miami University Press, 2010). He lives in Denver, where he co-founded the Denver Poets’ Theater and teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Follow him @smalllights

FacesintheCrowdoriginal photo by Lachlan Fearnley