Title: Faces In The Crowd
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Translator: Christina MacSweeney
Publisher: Coffee House Press, Minneapolis (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 56689 354 1
*This review contains spoilers*
Subway trains make me think of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Not all the time, obviously. But sometimes a train will be moving in a dark tunnel and a second train will overtake it. They will run on parallel tracks for a few seconds, side-by-side. Until the tracks diverge and the two trains separate – each into its own tunnel. Or one gains momentum and pulls away. If you are a passenger in one train, for those few seconds when the two trains are accelerating at the same rate of speed you can see clearly into the lit car, filled with passengers, traveling beside you. It’s eerie. Two reference frames briefly merge. Then one train begins to move away and the tenuous connection stretches taught, snaps. You are once again hurtling through a dark tunnel.
The plot of Faces In the Crowd seems to me to be built around this experience, peculiar to underground mass transit. Valeria Luiselli’s two narrators move through the same city but within different frames of reference. A young Mexican woman writes about the time when she lived in Harlem, translating (and fabricating) the poems of a forgotten Mexican poet named Gilberto Owen. The novel contains post-modern elements. As this woman writes from present day Mexico City about her past her husband and children interject, comment on and insert themselves into her narration.
The story is also being told from a different perspective, that of Gilberto Owen. He is a Mexican poet living in Philadelphia in the 1950’s. He travels to Manhattan regularly to see his children. Luiselli drifts between these two artists – creating a third level of narration in which we are led to believe that Owen’s parts of the story are actually being written in the present by the young woman in Mexico City. A star between paragraphs notifies us of a change in speaker. But sometimes even that can be misleading.
When I was in other people’s beds, I slept deeply and got up early the next morning. I’d dress quickly, steal the odd personal items – my favorites were towels, which smelled good, or white singlets – and depart in a good mood. I’d buy a coffee to go, a newspaper, and sit in some very public space, in full sunlight, to read. What I most liked about sleeping in other people’s beds was precisely that, waking up early, rushing out, buying a real newspaper, and reading in the sun.
My husband stands behind me as I write. He massages my shoulders, too hard, and reads what’s on the screen.
Is it him saying that or you?
Him – she barely speaks now.
And what about you, how many men have you slept with?
Only four, or perhaps five.
No one else. What about you?
There’s a lot of experimental writing happening in Faces In the Crowd. It’s a complicated book. Luiselli, a resident of New York City, has (like her two main characters) spent a lot of time travelling the NYC subways. Trains and platforms appear throughout the pages. The plot – and I use that term loosely – is convoluted and challenging. The characters are fascinating but not particularly charming. They do not drive the narrative so much as participate in an exercise in prose, an experiment in time and space. The narrator’s lives and thoughts overlap. They are, both metaphorically and literally, passengers on two trains traveling on parallel tracks. Sometimes running alongside each other and at other times entering separate tunnels. The twist arrives when they reach their destinations.
Valeria Luiselli can fairly be described as the new It Girl of Mexican literature. She’s everywhere these days: the Brooklyn Book Fair, Bomb Magazine, LA Review of Books, the London Book Fair, selected as one of The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 40, Electric Literature, The New Yorker, The Guardian, LitHub, NPR… Faces In the Crowd has been long listed for numerous prizes & shortlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. Luiselli also has a new book of essays coming out this Summer. She is a talented writer and a unique voice – there’s a casual, brusque earthiness in the way her characters express themselves, particularly the female writer in Faces… (who readers can be excused for imagining as a fictional version of Luiselli, whether or not that is the case). She is almost masculine in her descriptions of casual sexual encounters. “I could have told him I was going because I was incapable of sustaining and inhabiting the worlds I myself had fabricated, that I also had a scar splitting my face in two. Perhaps I could have made love to him in the bathtub. Perhaps I did make love to him.” “My husband has started reading some of these pages again. Did you use to sleep with women? he asks.”
Cliché as it may be, Frida Kahlo comes to mind while reading these pages. Or at least Salma Hayek’s portrayal of Frida. And the quiet desperation that goes hand-in-hand with having once been young in NYC that Jennifer Egan describes so perfectly in A Visit from the Goon Squad, particularly Sasha’s sections, and Joan Didion captured in her famous essay about leaving the city behind. Valeria’s writing reminded me of all those things.