Today, two very different books by Mexican writers: Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (Coffee House Press, 2013) and Sergio Pitol’s The Journey (Deep Vellum, 2015).
The subway, its multiple stops, its breakdowns, its sudden accelerations, its dark zones, could function as the space-time schema for this other novel.
Valeria Luiselli’s unnamed narrator is a young Mexican woman struggling to become a writer. There are three strands to her narrative: her years as a single woman working for a small publishing company in New York City, the succeeding years as a young mother in a dissolving marriage in Mexico City, and her ongoing research (which quickly becomes an obsession) on the Mexican writer Gilberto Owen (1904-1952). In rather formulaic fashion, the three narrative strands blend into one. Faces in the Crowd comes highly hyped: “fearless…precociously masterful” (Francisco Goldman) and “the best of all possible debuts’ (Enrique Vila-Matas), but I was underwhelmed. Here is Luiselli’s narrator in a subway car as she imagines seeing the face of Gilberto Owen in the window:
When there was once again darkness outside the window, I saw my own blurred image on the glass. But it wasn’t my face; it was my face superimposed on his – as if his reflection had been stamped onto the glass and now I was reflected inside that double trapped on my carriage window.
OK. Got it.
Luiselli’s approach to this intertwined narrative is standard fare (especially, it seems, in first novels) and, to be honest, nothing revelatory or innovative arises from the rather obvious ways in which she weaves the three threads together.
And I guess this is what is meant when Goldman refers to her “fearless, half-mad imagination”:
Dakota moved to her new house at the beginning of summer. It was an apartment in Queens, near a cemetery. The day they handed over the keys we went to buy three cans of paint. She wanted her whole house to look like Juliet Berto’s cobalt-blue bathroom in Céline et Julie vont en bâteau. We opened all the windows and stripped down to our panties. We painted the bathroom, the kitchen, but only half of the bedroom because we ran out of paint. We painted each other’s nipples cobalt blue. When we’d finished we lay face up on the bedroom floor and lit a cigarette apiece. Dakota suggested we swap panties.
Oddly enough, Luiselli and (once again) Enrique Vila-Matas wrote blurbs for my next book. The Journey (Deep Vellum Publishing) is the second volume in “Trilogy of Memory” by Sergio Pitol, a writer with a long history of serving his country as a cultural attaché. (I have not read the first volume, The Art of Flight, while the third, The Magician of Vienna, has not been issued yet.) The Journey concentrates on trips that Pitol made to Prague, Russia, and the Georgian city of Tbilisi sometime during the Gorbachev era. Wherever he goes, Pitol’s main interest is literature, and so most of this volume deals with the writers he meets, the books he reads, and the literary venues he visits. Even when the writers and their work were utterly unknown to me, The Journey made for lively, enlightening reading. As his publisher’s website puts it, Pitol “imaginatively blends the genres of fiction and memoir in a Borgesian swirl of contemplation and mystery, expanding our understanding and appreciation of what literature can be and what it can do.” While that might be overstating it a bit, it’s pretty close. Actually, the best summary of Pitol’s style comes from Pitol himself, when he describes the works of the Russian writer Marina Tsvetaeva, who he reveres:
In her writing of this period, the thirties, always autobiographical, everything dissolves into everything, the miniscule, the jocose, the digression on the task, on what is seen, lived, and dreamt, and she recounts it with unexpected rhythm, not without a certain delirium, an alacrity, which allows the writing itself to become its own structure, its reason for being.
It is nearly impossible for me to find a short, exemplary quote from Pitol’s book because he tends to pile impression upon impression until the reader finally intuits the complex point that Pitol has been making through his seeming aimless meandering. But here, with the use of a few ellipses, is a good example from the section on Prague:
I’m almost certain that the same day I allowed myself to be dazzled by the [Matthias] Braun exhibit, I was able to find, with the aid of a city map, the Café Arco, one of the holiest sites of interwar literature, where Franz Kafka met with his closest friends…They considered themselves provincials, disconnected from the living language, unconnected to contemporaneity, to the prestige of the metropolis, and the truth is that their very existence represented, but at the time neither they nor the world knew it, the zone of maximum tension of the German language…From the street and especially inside, the establishment could not be seamier. It looked like all the bleak and filthy fifth-rate establishments that Hašek created for his soldier Švejk…Imagining those young geniuses talking around a table in that dreary space, devoid of atmosphere, its floor littered with cigarette butts, greasy pieces of paper, and dirt, exchanging ideas and discussing them, or reading their latest texts to each other, had an obscene quality.
I read these two books back to back and was quite surprised by the result. Pitol’s book had been sent to me by the publisher and I had to convince myself to give it a try, whereas Luiselli’s book had been on my wish list for months, based on the intriguing publicity it had been receiving. But in the end, it was Pitol’s book that riveted me, even though I knew next to nothing about the literature of the Soviet Union or Georgia that was his main subject, while I frankly struggled to finish Luiselli’s book. Both of these writers traffic in fragmented moments to tell a larger story and both rely on deliberately blurred literary boundaries to create their signature styles. What Pitol brings to his writing is an exuberant passion that is leavened with a mature intelligence. In his search for whatever is truly original in literature and in life, he skewers any and all forms of pretentiousness. What Luiselli seems to be trying to do is to magnify the mundane details of daily life in hopes of locating significance. Luiselli, who references Hemingway on the first page, writes in a dead-pan language that seems desperate to sound as unliterary as possible, and it is only within such a deliberately barren context that the sudden appearance of cobalt-blue nipples or swapping underwear or casual sex might possibly be considered as some sort of shock value.