Faces In the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

Title:  Faces In The Crowd
Author:  Valeria Luiselli
Translator:  Christina MacSweeney
Publisher:  Coffee House Press, Minneapolis (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 56689 354 1

Faces in the Crowd*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.

And now?

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.

For all the apparent talent and promise on display I didn’t particularly enjoy Faces In the Crowd.  Part of that is my fault: I tried to read it in short bursts when what it needs is to be read in long, uninterrupted sittings. But ultimately I was undone by the segmented narrative structure, the messiness of the timeline, the sudden twists built on seemingly the flimsiest of foundations.  The entire thing appears to be the outline of a novel rather than a carefully crafted, finished product. Like Nabakov’s index cards* Faces In the Crowd seems to still be waiting for the author to return and fill in the empty spaces.  To complete the story.  Unless, of course, I’ve completely missed the point and the empty spaces are really what this story is all about.

 

*I probably should clarify that I’m thinking of The Original of Laura.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Faces In the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

  1. I felt it is a book about the space and people being in the same space but at different times I enjoyed the lose ends feel of her narrative I feel having read the non fiction she writes she maybe like us the reader to add to her story make it our own in a way

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    1. Stu –

      I haven’t read her nonfiction yet, but am looking forward to it. You may be right about Luiselli wanting us to add to her story and make it our own. And yet, I didn’t see a clear way in which to do that – or rather, a clear path into the story (if that makes sense?). I thought that the structure though messy was beautiful – the way her characters lives increasingly overlap eachother until they completely merge at the ending. But that ending didn’t work for me.

      Of course, all this is based on one reading. I wonder if my feelings would change if I were to sit down, uninterrupted, and read it all over again?

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    1. We seem to be the minority, Lisa. I wonder, which did you like better – Faces or My Teeth? I heard the author read a portion of My Teeth, and it sounded like something I would enjoy. Moreso that this book.

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  2. I entered into this book not really knowing what to expect and, for that matter, not really interested in a story about a young married woman with two children writing a novel and looking back on her past. Hmm… As the book became increasingly unstructured and metafictional my interest grew. I thought it was quite a daring and mature novel for such a young writer, I loved the way that, as moments are revisited it becomes increasingly difficult to tell what really happened and what is imagined. There are also some very telling reflections on literary obsessions and the validity of the process of translation. If a reader is seeking a straightforward narrative with clear resolution this is not the book. My own response was definitely more in line with Stu’s.

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    1. Based on reviews, roughghosts, the consensus is with you & Stu! 🙂 I too enjoy unstructured & metaficional narratives. Those definitely weren’t the reasons for my not liking Faces in the Crowd (though “not liking” is much too harsh. More accurately, it didn’t live up to my expectations based on all the reviews & recommendations I read). Ultimately it was too vague for me. And the ending felt a bit like a Hail Mary – as if she realized it was time to wrap this thing up and found just the plot device to do it. But that plot device only needed to have a tenuous link (at best) to the story that preceded.

      It was definitely a interesting voice and if only because of the chances she is willing to take Luiselli’s guaranteed that I’ll read everything of hers I can get my hands on. I’ve had this relationship in the past with authors like Steven Millhauser and Jeanette Winterson. I love how they write, if not everything they publish.

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