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.

 

 

Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki (translated by Thomas Lamarre & Kazuko Y. Behrans)

The description on the back cover of Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences compares the sci-fi/fantasy novel to the 2002 horror film The Ring (or Ringu, if you’re a purist who only acknowledges the original 1998 Japanese version). The film plot centers on  **SPOILER ALERT**  a video tape that’s haunted by a murdered girl.  Anyone who watches the tape dies in seven days. Of course there’s a loophole. (There’s always a loophole).

Outside of the initial premise that something you see/watch/read/focus-on-for-an-extended-period-of-time can kill you the plots are very different.  A better comparison is, in my opinion, “The Albertine Notes” by Rick Moody.   (This novella can be read in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales).  The two share several common themes – time travel, addiction, a mysterious and deadly drug (The Albertine Notes) or poem (Death Sentences), and an opportunity to set things right that comes at the end.  In addition, both stories feature an Asian protagonist and a haunting, fragmented narrative that only gradually resolves itself.

Chiaki’s novel opens in  the1980’s where we meet Sakamoto, a member of a Japanese special police unit tasked with stopping the spread of an unidentified narcotic among the population.  Its victims commit suicide.  We’re quickly told that what we assumed to be a  drug is actually a poem, copied by hand (copier use is now closely monitored by the authorities) and spread from person to person through an  underground network of addicts.

Death Sentences jumps back in time to 1930’s New York, and then forward to Paris in the late 40’s.  Here we witness, through the eyes of the Surrealist André Breton, the discovery of the poem and the emergence of the mysterious poet Who May.  (And it is here that Chiaki accomplishes the truly unimaginable – somehow making the Surrealists interesting!)    Who May will write only three powerful and disturbing poems: “Other World”, “Mirror” and “The Gold of Time”.  These are enough to establish his reputation and his shadowy place in history.  Breton is a witness, forced to watch helplessly as many of his contemporaries succumb to Who May’s art.  After reading only a few lines he will, we learn, spend much of his life seeking “The Gold of Time”.

Duchamp picked at the corner of the manuscript on the table with a fingernail.

“This man… Who May… isn’t he Chinese?  No matter, but what exactly did he think he was writing?  Poetry? Well, this is nothing like poetry.  It may be written with words, but this is painting.  And,one might say, quite garish at that.  Its fantasy is visually too primitive.  Don’t you think?  That paranoid Catalonian would be delighted to crank out his sort of thing in reams.”

That was a bit of sarcasm directed at Salvidor Dalí.

These two stories – the poem’s origin and its deadly consequences – converge in yet a third plotline that brings us back to 1980’s Japan.  In it a small, independent poetry press organizes an exhibit built around a collection of newly discovered materials belonging to the early Surrealists.  Among the items is André Breton’s trunk.

Kawamata Chiaki writes in abrupt, rapid fire prose. Each paragraph contains between 1-3 sentences and he incorporates a lot of dialogue.  Personally, I like his style (though, I’ve seen reviews on GoodReads by readers who did not).  It keeps the action moving and increases the tension.  It also imbues the whole experience with an alien atmosphere.  Chiaki – and his translators – use this stylistic tick to their advantage.  Creating a nice contrast between the main narrative and the stream of conscious flow of the excerpts of Who May’s poetry which appear within the story.

It was all too obvious what he’d been doing.

That night he returned home well past two in the morning, and while having a nightcap he’d started reading the manuscripts signed my Who May.

The bottle of whiskey had been left uncapped.  It was now empty.  The glass was empty, too.  Later they discovered that he hadn’t drunk the whiskey.  It had evaporated in the heat.  That explained why the place reeked.

At first Sakakibara thought he had drunk too much and fallen asleep like that.  But that wasn’t it.  Kasadera wasn’t asleep at all.  He was lying there with both eyes wide open, staring into space.

His one hand was still clutching one of the three manuscript copies.

Death Sentences blends genres – incorporating sci-fi, literary thriller and noir.  The plot, while not totally unexpected, is fairly complex in its construction.  It’s the elements of complexity – the converging plotlines, the large cast of characters, the flashbacks and forwards, the defiance of genre – that make this novel so unusual.  Not to mention ridiculously hard to stop reading.

The University of Minnesota Press has put out a beautiful edition, taking the time to include a good amount of scholarly material.  The implication being that they consider Death Sentences a significant example of contemporary Japanese writing. I only wish more publishers would follow their example. There is a Foreword by Takayuki Tatsumi and an Afterword by Thomas Lamarre.  Both with notes. Both closely examine the novel itself, its author and his influences.  The care and attention that has gone into packaging this book (which, to their credit, seems to be typical of Minnesota) has me eagerly anticipating the next Chiaki novel to be published in English. I’ve been told that it deals with hikikomori culture – the Japanese phenomenon where young adults retreat from the world, never leaving their bedrooms.  Just imagine what a skilled storyteller like Kawamati Chiaki will do with a subject like that!

[Correction:  The hikikomori book is actually by another Japanese author, Saito Tamaki.  The title is Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End and is scheduled to be released Spring, 2013.  I suppose that’s what happens when you repeat things you thought you heard over loud music & drinks!]

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 8166 5455 0

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