Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Luiselli, Valeria (2011), Faces in the Crowd, Granta
[Translated from the Spanish by Christine MacSweeney]
ISBN 978-1-84708-507-8

luiselli 2It’s entirely accidental that my last review of 2015 and my first review of 2016 are both of novels by Mexican authors. Both novels are short, and both are written by skilled writers. Yet while Yuri Herrera’s novel is a masterpiece, well written, constructed and, I think, translated, the same cannot be said of Valeria Luiselli’s debut Faces In The Crowd. While certainly very clever, and often extremely well constructed, Luiselli offers a meagre dish, bereft of the flesh of story. Every word, every observation is spoken for – more than once. Similes and metaphors serve many purposes, including a metafictional one where they have to stand in for the principle of indirect speech. Writers, places, voices and observations enter the book and are immediately transformed. As a performance, this seems utterly cold and mechanical, yet Luiselli is always in control of her craft. There’s not much here, except, hidden in the folds of all these references upon references, this forest of symbols and indirection, a story of a young mother, terrified by a new experience, lost to the outside world somehow and trying to recreate a world purely intellectually. Moreover, the translation by Christina MacSweeney is frequently inconsistent, sloppy and flat in a way that makes me suspect a fault on the translator’s side rather than a failing by the author. I find it hard to critique so harshly a book that is so well constructed, but as a whole, I found the book exceptionally unsatisfying. One aspect that raised Herrera’s novel beyond other books of similar length and density is the narrative depth, the way Herrera allowed for life and myth to flood the book in all the right places. And for a pure novel of ideas, Luiselli lacks the rigor and thoroughness of, say, a David Markson, whose work the novel often reminded me of, or the supple confidence of Woolf, another obvious touchstone. At the same time, I can see this author producing stellar work in the future, given the brilliance of many of its constructions and the ease with which she assembled her book. This book is certainly worth reading, especially if you’re generally interested in poetry and modernism. It’s not a great novel, but that is a lot to ask of a short debut. It’s strange and entertaining, and through its allusiveness and density even has a bit of staying power.

The structure of the book is complex, and maybe one of the things that the author does not control perfectly. On its face, it is a novel about a female writer writing a novel. It contains three or four different kinds of sections. There is the present day narrative, which is basically a journal of the putative author’s daily goings-on, as she lives in a house somewhere in Mexico City, with her recently born second child, her husband, and a somewhat older child. Her husband is an architect who may or may not be unhappy with his marriage to the narrator/author. He also, in the first half of the novel, reads the pages already written, and the narrator later reports his remarks to us. This is not quite as in Laurent Binet’s loquacious HHhH, a novel that constantly discussed its own genesis and the author’s thought process, as well as misgivings by friends and lovers. The main difference is that -fascinatingly, really – Luiselli uses this tool of reflecting on the creation of the book without actually reflecting on its form, really. The husband’s reading is merely used to raise questions of authenticity and truth on the one hand, and add fuel to that present day’s narrative’s main concern: the feeling of loneliness and rejection that the narrator constantly feels. Never leaving her house, the narrator’s journal alludes to the Gothic tradition with all its emotional and psychological trappings, but takes care to tie other cultural and historical narratives into it, from the Collyer brothers, immortalized by the late E.L. Doctorow (Doctorow’s excellent novel on the Collyer brothers came out in 2009, Luiselli’s novel in 2011, it’s reasonable to assume that one influenced the other) as well as Emily Dickinson, or rather: the crooked cultural narrative we have of isolated spinster Dickinson. It is not until the very end that Luiselli returns to the core elements of the Gothic, after having cycled through various versions of it especially in the second half of the novel. Yet not all parts of the novel are even touched by the Gothic.

The arguably most important kinds of sections in the first half of the novel are reminiscences of the narrator’s past in New York. It is these reminisces that the husband, reading the manuscipt/journal, objects to most strenuously, mostly on the grounds of jealousy. That’s because in them, the author/narrator remembers her time in independent publishing/translation, which involved sexual congress with a few different men. The main aspect of that narrative, however, is the author’s insistence on getting Gilberto Owen, an obscure (but real) Latino poet and ambassador, who was born in Mexico in 1904 and died in Philadelphia in 1952, translated. To achieve this goal, she invents a whole backstory for the poet, including a forged manuscript of translations, purportedly by the hand of fictional poet Joshua Zvorsky (a thinly veiled allusion to Louis Zukofsky, the great objectivist poet (listen here to Mark Scroggins discuss the poet)). On the back of Zvorsky’s good name, the translations (really done by the author), achieve great success until her conscience forces her to declare the forgery. The whole affair is done in really broad strokes, as far as the literary business is concerned. It’s hard not to think of the way critics and publishers fêted Bolaño and other writers not, maybe, all too interested in the accuracy of the biographical narratives offered. Yet Faces In The Crowd is not a satire. Luiselli is not really concerned with the whole business of hyping and publishing obscure writers for Western audiences. What she’s really interested in is her imagined figure of Owen. In order to make him attractive to her publisher, she invented a whole backstory for him that involved friendships with Lorca, “Zvorsky” and other greats of early 20th century poetry in New York. This led to her wish to write a novel about Owen, which is the project that she chronicles in her journals in present day Mexico City. The sections from that novel (or Owen’s imagined life?) are more expansive and imaginary than anything else in the book, and they dominate the second half of Luiselli’s novel. In the portions of the biographical novel, we learn of both Owen’s life in New York as well as of his final years in Philadelphia where he, according to our author/narrator, suffers from a mysterious illness that makes him lose weight without actually slimming down.

luiselli 3I spent a lot of time explaining structure and plot of the book, but its real achievement is not in these elements. It’s in the way all of this works, and the way Luiselli references and uses literary history. One of the dominant images of the book is the phrase that has become the English title of the novel (the original one is Los Ingrávidos), taken straight from the famous Pound poem “In a Station of the Metro”

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The poem is referenced almost in full twice and alluded to at other times, but Luiselli does not just use the image to explain the way she thinks of lives passing through time and appearing to people at other times, her use of the poem allows us to see how Pound’s literary theories are also part and parcel of how the novel itself is constructed. Pound’s poem, which I just quoted with a colon, has also (and is, these days, most frequently) been printed with a semicolon. What’s more, there are differently spaced versions. Pound revised the poem in multiple printings and, as many essays have shown (most succinctly perhaps a 1990 essay by Chilton/Gilbertson), these changes are in step with his different opinion on how to use the image. Commonly, we understand Pound’s career at that time to make a change from a movement called Imagism to a much less influential and shorter lived movement called Vorticism. Imagism is basically the idea of letting an image or an object speak for itself. The poem was inspired by Japanese poetry and the implicit metaphors or similes in them. The question of how explicit and implicit metaphors are is one that also concerns the Luiselli’s novel, which crawls with similes, some odd, some interesting, some flat. And there are various things. There are objects that mirror or represent people, there are similes, there are metaphors and maybe allegories. Luiselli runs the gamut of indirect ways of connection images and ideas. But Pound, in making the change to a semicolon and vorticism, starts moving away from the idea of an implicit simile and towards a “superposition” of ideas. Luiselli’s book moves from the indirect idea of grappling with her past and present life and Owen’s life to the full narratives of Owen’s life in the second half. People and lives appear in the ‘wrong’ time, like superpositions, as ghosts or faded images. What’s more is that Pound said of his poem that it recorded “the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective. “ In many ways, this also describes the process of the novel, as we move from a broad, tentative take on the process of writing about Owen and dealing with the author/narrator’s fascination for it, to a more fully subjective take on Owen, life and literary history.

Similarly, the author makes use of Zukofsky’s poetic tenets, although I don’t want to discuss this here before this review’s length explodes any further. It’s enough to state that in many ways, Zukofsky’s Objectivism is a variation on the Imagism of Pound, an exploration of it, more connected to history and time than Pound’s early work was. Questions of sincerity, observation and directness are raised and answered by Luiselli in a way that shows the influence of Zukofsky. Yet, while I don’t want to go into these aspects, I want to mention something else: the connection between Zukofsky and translation. The fact that we can tell that the fictional author “Zvorsky” is really Zukofsky is evidenced by the way Luiselli explicitly references the early section “A-9” from Zukofsky’s long poem “A” (which turns into “That” in the novel). But she does it with a bit of indirection, by offering us a (fictional) translation Owen made of a Lorca translation of a section of “A-9” – now, this would have been a clever bit of literary play, but Luiselli’s depth of reference exceeds simple allusions like that. Her “translation” is not a translation the way we would all understand it – it is a translation in the way Zukofsky practically pioneered it: based on sound rather than meaning, a method that has been replicated many times since (Ted Berrigan’s work comes to mind), but has only been really popularized by Zukofsky. This makes the allusion to Zukofsky work on two distinct levels: on content and method. Speaking of translation: in the first paragraph, I have made disparaging remarks on MacSweeney’s work, but her rendering of the triple translation of Zukofsky appears to be extremely well done, as far as I can tell without recourse to the original. Sadly, the translator appears to have concentrated much of her creative energy on that section to the detriment of others. The prose in Luiselli’s book, as rendered by MacSweeney, is frequently pedestrian, usually flat.

I cannot tell whether the fault lies with the author or the translator, but the early reference to Hemingway lets me suspect a combination of both. Hemingway and Carver are devils, sent to this world to deceive and trick the youth into writing flat declarative, short-limbed prose that lacks the precision of syntax and word choice that made those two writers into the masters they were (in fact, not even Carver was able to be Carver, as we know, and Hemingway had trouble maintaining his own high wire act for long). As I can tell from German attempts to translate American fiction, there is often a process of further degradation when translators try to render simple/laconic writing into the target language. I suspect that is what happened here. What’s more, sometimes the translation just seems sloppy, with odd phrases that appear to not offer us some odd phrase in the original but a mirror of the Spanish original, a frequent mistake that happens in quick interlinear translations. This should have been caught by the book’s editors, however, as well as other slips. For example, for a particularly egregious one, at some point, the author/narrator is watching a movie which she calls “Raining Hamburgers” – I had a hunch and checked the Mexican title of the American animated movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and sure enough, it’s “Lluvia de hamburguesas”. These are minor mistakes but they contribute to an overall impression of sloppiness and add to the meagre narrative flesh on the bones of this book.

luiselli1There are so many ideas all over the book that I have barely managed to mention even most of them. Representation, motherhood, feminity, literary tradition. I mean the whole use of the Collyer brothers, who at some point stopped leaving their apartment, inviting instead the world into it in the form of books, texts and rare objects until they were found dead in the debris, deserves a thorough analysis. In a section that pretends to be a memory, Luiselli draws on the concept of psychogeography, but her narrator, the young mother, inverts the principle. Instead of walking the world and engaging with its symbolical structure, she imposes symbols onto a world that she does not see, an outside that might as well not exist, toying with Korzybski’s map/territory binary. The very fact that the husband who may or may not leave her, is an architect. The concepts and consequences behind the idea of Owen losing weight while staying the same on the outside. I mean, it’s a long list and everything ties into everything. This process is endlessly fascinating but it does not ultimately make Faces in The Crowd a good book. An interesting book, yes, but Luiselli’s book reads like the endlessly well crafted artifact of a critic-turned-writer, although I don’t know whether that is, indeed the case. It is not enough to say this book is overdetermined. It is, in fact, so painstakingly worked that it barely resembles prose any more in its density and lack of narrative or emotional energy. It resembles a baroque poem, written to impress with its craft, to delight an appreciative audience. Only that, for a poem, Luiselli’s – or, more precisely, MacSweeney’s – language is too vague for this book to dazzle. I think Luiselli got lost in the house of her own mind and construction and this book is the result.

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