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.

 

 

The Healer: A Novel by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the original Finnish by Lola Rogers

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What makes the dystopian future described by Finnish author Antti Tuomainen  so disturbing is that it so closely resembles parts of the world we live in today.  He’s made the canny decision to dispense with futuristic tech and all the other trappings we’ve come to associate with the post-apocalypse: Mad Maxx gangs roaming a barren landscape, the rich farming the poor like domesticated cattle, the rise of the machines, etc.  None of those factor into Tuomainen’s vision for the future:  a place where we still live in houses and apartments, have jobs (if we’re lucky), call for cabs on crowded streets, shop for clothes and scan the tabloids for dirt on the latest pop sensation.

Instead he shows us how we have created the circumstances which will eventually end us.

That’s the whole problem in the first place… That everyone got to choose.  Endlessly, with no limits.  That’s why we’re here today….As if electronics wrapped in plastic or cotton irrigated with drinking water could ever be anything but a detriment, the cause of the destruction, replacing something irreplaceable with a pile of trash…

I don’t think a more frightening scenario exists.  Which is exactly what the author intends.

The Healer is set in an unspecified future where the consequences of climate change have only recently made themselves apparent – at least in the cataclysmic sense.  Resources haven’t been completely depleted, but they are running out.  Refugees are arriving in the Northern hemisphere en masse.  Finland, a country that occupies a total area of 130,596 geographic square miles (that’s 16,446 square miles less than the state of Montana), has become one giant refugee camp.  Everything is chaos.  Disease is rampant.  Food and shelter are running out.  There’s 13 wars/conflicts happening in the EU.  The reader is witnessing the breakdown of civilization.  Tuomainen has his protagonist describe evenings spent at the apartment window, sipping coffee and looking at dozens of orange pinpoints of light in the distance.  They are giant fires, built by the displaced, dotting the landscape.

Helsinki is the place where everyone is escaping to. Readers are given hints, but are for the most part left on their own to conjure the places the refugees are escaping from. We get a sense of the dire situation when the book’s hero is befriended by a cab driver, a “young North African man” named Hamid who will prove to be worth his weight in gold.

Hamid liked Finland.  Here, at least, there was some possibility of making good – he might even be able to start a family here.

I listened to his fast-flowing, broken English and watched him in profile.  A narrow, light-brown face, alert, nut-brown eyes in the rearview mirror; quick hands on the steering wheel.  Then I looked at the city flashing by, the flooded streets glistening, puddles the size of ponds, shattered windows, doors pried from their hinges, cars burned black, and people wandering in the rain.  Where I saw doom, Hamid saw hope.

It’s a slow and steady decline towards extinction. And into this environment Tuomainen has plotted a missing person case that is completely riveting.  There is no one, catastrophic, event that put us in this place. Just a series of bad decisions.

Tapani Lehtinen, the hero and narrator, isn’t a detective.  He’s a poet whose last collection was published four years earlier.  His wife, Johanna, is a journalist investigating an eco-terrorist turned serial killer known only as “The Healer”.   When the book opens she’s been missing for approximately 24 hours.  All Tapani has to begin his search with is a phone call from Johanna he recorded by mistake.  She tells him she’ll be away overnight, following a lead.  Her last words to him are: “See you tomorrow at the latest.  I love you.”

Tapani attempts to go to the police for help, even approaching an Inspector who Johanna had once helped to solve an important case.  But, like everything else, the force is in disarray.  They can’t keep up with the influx of people and crime.  Private security companies are popping up everywhere – often doing more harm than good.  Everyone with the resources to do so has fled even farther North.  In the end all the Inspector can offer Tapani is police resources:  video footage, access to information, and the occasional assist.  There’s no man-power to spare.

It turns out to be enough.  The trail Tapani follows is made up of his & Johanna’s shared and individual histories.  As the plot develops it’s close to impossible to stop reading.  Everything feels so plausible.  Each revelation becomes another piece in the natural progression of events.  As for the translation – it’s fantastic.  Whether Lola Roger has been completely faithful to the original I can’t say.  But I’ve always looked at the act of translation as being a collaboration between an author and translator – the result of which should be judged on its own merit and not just  as a variation of a form (bear with me: I’m getting a little Platonic here).  The English translation of The Healer  is a fully realized and beautifully written book in and of itself.

The ending, particularly, is brilliant.  I’ve seen it described as an “open ending” in some reviews, which to me implies that there might be a sequel.  That would be a shame.  Without giving anything away (brief tangent: did anyone else read Joyce Carol Oates NYRB reviews of two of Derek Raymond’s “Factory” novels/mysteries?  She gives away the killer for BOTH books!  WHO does THAT????!) the ending is perfectly in tune with the world Tuomainen describes.  In addition, it structurally reflects the novel’s over-arcing message and is a clever piece of writing.  Any other direction he might have gone in would have felt contrived and cliché.  Instead, it is the best part of the book.  No small compliment when describing a book this good.  Like Eliot, Tuomainen sees the power in allowing the world to end.  Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Healer is Antti Tuomainen’s third novel.  It won the Clue Award for the Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2011 and was subsequently translated into 26 different languages.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9554 8

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“We are a queer lot.”

At the height of the feud between his wife, sister Lavinia and his mistress, Austin Dickinson writes “This may all seem very queer to you, and it is. We are a queer lot.” This wasn’t merely a figure of speech.  The Dickinson family was indeed “a queer lot”. Thomas Wentworth Higginson referred to Emily, in particular, as “my partially cracked poetess in Amherst”.   These three siblings lived their lives on their own terms. And as a result created the kind of melodrama we expect to find in a daytime soap opera; not a small, 19th century New England town.

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds expands standard biography by turning the spotlight away from the poet and onto those who promoted her literary reputation after her death.  And, in the process, furthered her legend.  Using letters, medical records, a judicious amount of poetic interpretation – Lyndall Gordon makes a case for an alternative version of Emily Dickinson to the “girl in white persona” (a calculated ruse perpetrated by Emily and continued by her family).  Gone is the virginal recluse. In her place is a middle-aged woman of strong passions and opinions. Who, as a girl, defied the founder of Mt. Holyoke by refusing to convert to fundamentalism; whose girlfriends stopped responding to her odd and frighteningly intense letters; who flaunted her flirtations with married men and in the last years of her life conducted a heated affair with the friend of her late father.

‘When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him,’ she said. ‘When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is “acquainted with Grief,” we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own.

– Emily Dickinson on the death of Judge Lord

Gordon’s research has provided us with a new interpretation of the woman and her poems. The most intriguing theory perhaps is that while Emily inarguably embraced her seclusion, the actual reason behind it was epilepsy. Due to the shame associated with the disease it would have remained a carefully guarded family secret even after her death. Medical records and a family history seems to support this. Both Emily’s uncle and nephew were likely epileptics.

But why is this version of the poet so different from the one we learned about in school? Gordon explains that while the co-opting of Emily Dickinson began almost immediately upon her death, it had its roots in the events of the years leading up to it. In 1882 Emily’s brother Austin began an affair with a 26-year old faculty wife named Mabel Loomis Todd. It would continue until his death in 1895 with the knowledge and blessing of Mabel’s husband. For appearances sake the lovers’ trysts took place at the Dickinson sisters’ house, known as the Homestead. Next door at the Evergreens Austin’s wife and children were fully aware of what was happening, with no choice but to accept it.

The Dickinson family divided into two camps over the affair. Austin, Mabel, Mabel’s husband and Lavinia in one. Austin’s wife and children in the other. Emily, perhaps for the first time, is shown to have remained sympathetic with her sister-in-law Sue. And when Mabel grew more brazen, colluding with Austin to disinherit his children, Gordon believes that it was Emily who held the line in their defense. This feud determined what became of Emily’s poems and, subsequently, what we know about the poet.

Book Darts in action!

Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd never met in life.  But after Emily’s death Mabel staged a daring coup for control of the poet’s legacy. She fought with Sue and Lavinia over the poems. Who had the right to edit and publish them? Whose name should appear on the book? To whom did ownership of the work belong? This situation was more complicated than it seems. Emily left all her possessions, including the famous handmade booklets of poetry, to her sister Lavinia. But over the years Emily had sent Sue hundreds of poems and letters, which Lavinia spitefully kept Sue from publishing. Instead, Mabel was brought in by Lavinia to edit the poems for publication. Lavinia never reimbursed or credited Mabel for her efforts, which were considerable.  In a sense these women were fighting over who was the rightful heir to Emily’s spirit.

Written in an engaging, satisfyingly gossipy style, Lives Like Loaded Guns includes portraits of all the key figures in the mythos of Emily Dickinson. Gordon pays particular attention to Mabel, a controversial figure for obvious reasons. A woman whose passions and ambition rivaled Emily’s own, the simple fact that Mabel was born two decades later provided her with opportunities – as a New Women of the late 19th century – that the sheltered Dickinson women would never even have dreamt of.

Here is the unclassifiable phenomenon: not quite the femme fatale, not quite the gold-digger, and not so much the social climber as to leave her husband in order to cling exclusively to her ‘King’. The constant in her history, far back, is that ‘presentiment’ combined with contempt for the domestic destiny of lesser women. Mabel’s ambition, confirmed by an array of talents but starved of means, came nearest the bone.

Lyndall Gordon gives a remarkably fair and even-handed account of people and events.  The breadth of this book is impressive, continuing on after the deaths of Sue and Mabel to look at the impact of the feud on the next generation. Both Mattie Dickinson and Millicent Todd Bingham continued fighting over Mattie’s aunt, each publishing their own editions of the poems and furthering their own agendas along the way. It’s a bitter history Gordon has taken on, but she does it with grace and due diligence.

Biography is not for the timid.

Publisher:  Viking, New York (2010).
ISBN:  978 0 670 02193 2

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