Faces in the Crowd, by Valeria Luiselli and translated by Christina MacSweeney
Every now and then I don’t pay attention. When Ferrante fever was at its peak I decided to give her a try and so read her frankly disappointing Troubling Love. It was only after I finished it that I realised I’d read the only Ferrante that nobody had ever recommended to me.
Likewise Luiselli. I remembered that she’d been recommended to me. Unfortunately I forgot that it was her second novel everyone had recommended. I read her first. Faces in the Crowd isn’t bad, but it is very much a first novel. It wears its influences openly, is careful and neat and just a little bit self-conscious.
Here’s a quote from the first page:
It all began in another city and another life. That’s why I can’t write this story the way I would like to – as if I were still there, still just only that other person. I find it difficult to talk about streets and faces as if I saw them every day. I can’t find the correct tenses. I was young, had strong, slim legs.
(I would have liked to start the way Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ends.)
So from the outset it’s clear that in part this is a novel about writing (one of my least favourite literary topics, which is hardly Luiselli’s fault). It’s also clear that this is very much a literary novel referencing other writers. It rather lost me here though, as while I have read A Moveable Feast I don’t actually remember the ending and didn’t much feel like stopping the Luiselli to go and check it.
The narrator is married with a small child. She’s trying to write a novel but her life mitigates against it. There’s no space in their apartment dedicated to her use. Interruptions are constant:
In this big house I don’t have a place to write. On my worktable there are nappies, toy cars, Transformers, bibs, rattles, things I still can’t figure out. Tiny objects take up all the space, I cross the living room and sit on the sofa with my computer on my lap. The boy comes in:
What are you doing, Mama?
Writing just a book, Mama?
What we’re reading is the novel she’s writing. She writes about the process of writing it. She writes about her husband reading the drafts and commenting on them. He doesn’t like how she depicts him, which makes him another form of interruption and intrusion into her work. Here he objects because she’s portrayed him as being a fan of zombie movies:
I don’t like zombie films. Why did you write that I like zombie films?
Please, cut the zombies.
She doesn’t cut the zombies of course or we wouldn’t be reading that passage. Later he complains that she has him walk out on her and their son when he’s done nothing of the kind. She explains that she needed something dramatic to happen. It’s very meta.
The narrator becomes interested in the early 20th Century poet Gilberto Owen. Increasingly her story becomes about him, or perhaps we’re now reading his story. The two blur against each other, intermingle. Sometimes it’s not clear if we’re reading her perspective or his. They see each other on the subway, though they live in different cities in different decades. They are each other’s ghosts.
I actually rather liked that element. The narrator is getting eclipsed in her own life by her roles as wife and mother. Gilberto’s situation is quite different, and yet somehow still an echo. His eyesight is failing and as it does he seems himself to fade from the view of those around him. He too is eclipsed.
The trouble is that all this needs a light touch and that’s sometimes lacking here. Take this early quote from page 2:
A few days ago my husband stepped on a dinosaur when he was coming downstairs and there was a cataclysm. Tears, screaming: the dinosaur was shattered beyond repair. Now my T-Rex really has been extincted, sobbed the boy. Sometimes we feel like two paranoid Gullivers, permanently walking on tiptoe so as not to wake anyone up, not to step on anything important and fragile.
It doesn’t leave much for me as the reader to do does it? Remove the sentence starting “Sometimes” and the point is still made, but not spelled out. Perhaps just delete from “, not to step on anything important and fragile” since that’s really where Luiselli just goes a bit too far and explains her paragraph for those at the back who might not be paying attention.
Similarly, there are occasional standalone sentences such as the one I used as the title for this piece or later:
A dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart.
It felt like I was being hit over the head with the novel’s themes. Yes, it’s well written at the level of the individual sentence, but it’s not given room to breathe. For a novel suffused with uncertainty I felt Luiselli needed to explain a bit less.
Once you lose sympathy with a novel you find fault everywhere. Lines which might otherwise pass without comment become jarring. I’ll end with one final quote taken from part of a description of one of the narrator’s friends:
She had soft, heavy breasts; small nipples. She used to say she had philosophical nipples.
To which my thought was: has anyone, anywhere, ever said that? The truth is that it’s quite possible someone has, it may even be something Luiselli once heard someone say, but in the context of the book I found it frankly silly. If I’d had sympathy with the novel I might have reacted quite differently, seen it as a comment on the narrator’s estrangement or something like that, but instead I was just conscious of the writing without finding the writing interesting.
So, after all that it may be a surprise that I plan to read more Luiselli. The thing is though, she can write and this is a first novel. It may be that she’s just not my writer and that’s fair enough, but by all accounts her second novel is more experimental and I suspect that may be where her instincts and talent best lie.
Stu at Winston’s Dad’s Blog has covered this here and clearly clicked with it much more than I did. He’s since reviewed two more Luiselli which is helpful too and I’ll be reading through his other reviews with interest. Stu also comments a little on the narrator’s job in publishing and how that interacts with her work on Owen and his contemporary Lorca which I didn’t touch on above but is among the best parts of the novel.
Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat also read and reviewed it here and again liked it more than me. Caroline has some reservations – she found the narrator a bit cold which actually I didn’t – but it’s arguably to the book’s credit that different readers have different issues with it.
Caroline says at one point in her review “ It’s a book to read again, slowly.” Had I but world enough and time I probably would give it another go since my lack of engagement may have been a problem of chemistry or timing rather than the text itself. However, faced with mortality as I am I’ll probably just skip ahead to her second book and see how that goes instead.
In a Station of the Metro
Finally, for those who don’t get the reference (I didn’t), the title is taken from the Ezra Pound poem In a Station of the Metro. The full poem is as follows:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Perfect for a novel in which people catch elusive glimpses of each other on the subway, and generally just a lovely piece of imagist poetry. Gorgeous and clever. I like Pound but I didn’t know that poem (famous as it apparently is) and I’m delighted to have discovered it.
Edit to add reviews by Grant here and by Rough Ghost here.
Further edit: I’d also bookmarked this review to link to, by Shigekuni. It’s more critical than mine if anything and among other interesting points picks up some translation issues which it’s worth looking at for. The final paragraph is punchy:
“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.”