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.

 

 

Open City by Teju Cole

Reading Open City, it’s easy to imagine that you’re on the listening end of a psychotherapy session. The narrator, Julius, is a Nigerian-born psychiatrist completing his residency in New York City.  It is from his point-of-view that the reader experiences the novel, which is not so much a sequential narrative of events as it is the gradual dismantling of Julius’ psyche: a man who has emotionally removed himself from the messiness of life.

Instead of a traditional story we are given streams of beautiful, thoughtful prose.  Often Julius reveals more to the reader than he is, himself, aware of.  I wouldn’t go so far as to classify him as an unreliable narrator, there’s a vulnerability to his speeches that screams honesty.  He’s not the most likeable person.  His self-absorption makes it too easy for him to discard the past and its relationships.  With one possible exception, all his interactions with other people are transient.   The careful reader detects a certain amount of self-denial, or mental obfuscation, in Julius as regards his own nature.  When confronted with his true character he is incapable of acknowledging it.

We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities.  The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.  Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remembered with an outsize intensity.

There were several moments when Open City reminded me of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge or, more recently, Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (both Chejfec & Cole were part of the Walker in the City panel that I attended at the Brooklyn Book Festival).  Mixed in with unintended personal revelations by the narrator are stunning descriptive passages which pull you into the page and make you forget that you are reading a book.

Their pause let me hear the other sound present, that of an instrument being played at the opposite end of the park.  I wanted to get closer to it, and so I walked under the arbor of elms, passing by rows of concrete chess tables, which were oases of order and invitations to a twinned solitude.  But no one sat at them or played chess.  Around the tables, where they sank into the earth, moss grew, spreading up the concrete and into the ground so that it seemed as if the chessboards had grown roots.  I walked under the trees, past the creak of the children’s swings and, as I moved closer to the end of the arbor, I could make out the sound of an ehru.  The line was breathy and nimble, the precise nimbleness of an old-fashioned thing.  How clear its sound in the park, how unlike the whine the same instrument made when it was played by a subway busker competing with the screech of subway trains.

Julius’ thoughts form a continuous, uninterrupted dialogue with the reader – transitions are created by the changes in the setting.  Our narrator is a walker.  He takes us all over New York City, through the city of Brussels, makes references to the terrains of Nigeria and France.  It gives structure to a story that could easily sprawl out of control.

Open City is Teju Coles’ first novel, but reads as the work of a mature and experienced author.  No surprise it’s on a bunch of the 2011 Best Of lists (including the New Yorker, the Seattle Times & TIME).  I definitely recommend getting a copy.  And, while you’re at it – Teju Cole is also on Twitter.  If you aren’t already following him @tejucole then you’re missing out on some great (& free) flash fictions.  Here’s an example:

https://twitter.com/#!/tejucole/status/145413544928739328

Publisher:  Random House, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 4000 6809 8

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