Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (trans Christina MacSweeney) $15.95, 154 pp. Coffee House Press.
At the end of the essay “Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces,” the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli seeks to define the writer’s role. She begins by rejecting the image of the architect: “No, writing isn’t filling gaps—nor is it constructing a house, a building, just to fill up an empty space.” From there she considers the metaphor of the bonsai tree, though “gardens are for the poets with orderly, landscaped hearts.” Ultimately, she aligns writing prose with “a builder’s spirit”:
drilling walls, breaking windows, blowing up buildings. Deep excavations to find—to find what? To find nothing.
A writer is a person who distributes silence and empty spaces.
These “empty spaces” are the relingos of the essay’s title, spaces that “exist . . . as long as we remember them, remember ourselves there, and, above all, as long as we remember what we imagined in them.” Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses “[d]eep excavations” to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a young writer and of the poet she has translated, Gilberto Owen. Owen, a Mexican poet active from the 1920s through his death in 1952, served as a diplomat in New York and Philadelphia, settings which play an important role in the novel. Luiselli weaves together four different narratives: the young woman’s past attempts to attract interest in Owen’s work, her current life as a mother in Mexico City, Owen’s formative poetic years in New York City in the 1920s, and his struggle to maintain a relationship with his children, post-divorce, in 1950s Philadelphia.
The unnamed woman narrator living in Mexico City insists that, unlike her architect husband, she “can’t make spaces from nothing. I can’t invent. I only manage to emulate my ghosts, write the way they used to speak, not make noise, narrate our phantasmagoria.” Her ghosts include her children—referred to as “the boy” and “the baby”—the people she worked with during her early adult years as a translator in New York City, and Gilberto Owen and his various compatriots in 1920s New York City and 1950s Philadelphia.
Readers may come to question the narrator’s assertion that she “can’t invent.” Her husband, who often reads her manuscript-in-progress, challenges the accuracy of her portrayal of their lives, and her record of Owen’s years in the U.S. clashes with some of the research she did while trying to convince her American boss to publish a translation of his poems. This doesn’t make her unreliable so much as it highlights the emphasis in “Relingos” on “remember[ing] what we imagined” (emphasis added). Like any good novel, even one that purports “never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn,” Faces in the Crowd presents a carefully particularized, and fictionalized, world.
The title itself comes from one of the apocryphal—and easily debunked—versions of the genesis of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” According to Luiselli’s narrator, the “version I liked” involved Pound seeing a friend, Henry Gaudier-Brzeska, in the New York subway months after he had been killed in World War I. That Gaudier-Brzeska died two years after the poem was first published is of no concern for Luiselli’s novel. Instead, the mere possibility of Pound’s having seen his friend’s face in the crowd rushing by foreshadows the narrator’s own encounters with Gilberto Owen, decades after the man’s death, in that same subway. Even before their first encounter, the narrator spends a night on the roof of Owen’s apartment building, communing with his ghost. “If I believed in turning points,” she writes, “which I don’t, I’d say that I began that night to live as if inhabited by another possible life that wasn’t mine, but one which, simply by the use of imagination, I could give myself up to completely. I started looking inward from the outside, from someplace to nowhere.” This process leads to the fabrications that so frustrate her husband—particularly as they focus on his abandoning the family for an old girlfriend—and to the decision to write “[a] horizontal novel, told vertically. A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within.” This novel-within-the-novel is the story of Owen’s decline, estranged from his family and going blind, while working for the Mexican consulate in Philadelphia in the early 1950s.
I take the distinction between horizontal and vertical stories to be the difference between a causally linked, chronologically plotted novel and one that focuses on digging beneath the surface of the empty spaces of the more traditional form. Such spaces consist of the unremarkable events of daily life, those that would be omitted from a more plot-driven work. For instance, readers follow the narrator to the library to research Owen’s life and accompany the poet on an excursion with his children to Morningside Park. Not coincidentally, these narrative “empty spaces” often appear in the subterranean world of the subway system. The narrator collects information about and quotations by Owen on yellow Post-It notes, one of which reads, “New York has to be seen from the viewpoint of the subway. The flat horizontal perspective vanishes there. A bulky landscape begins, with the double depth, or what they call the fourth dimension, of time.” Here we see Luiselli’s preference for the vertical, for digging beneath the surface, just as the subway conveys travelers through space while still avoiding the “flat horizontal perspective” of ordinary street level.
This added dimension is freed from chronology in Luiselli’s telling, as the narrator believes she sees Owen in the subway on multiple occasions; in his later years, he even believes he sees someone who looks exactly like her. The most significant encounter between them elicits
the stabbing certainty that I was in the presence of something at once beautiful and terrible. I was looking out the window—nothing except the heavy darkness of the tunnels—when another train approached from behind and for a few moments traveled at the same speed as the one I was on. I saw him sitting in the same position as me, his head resting against the carriage window. And then nothing. . . . 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.
Owen’s “double depth” becomes the doubled image of the narrator’s reflection overlaid on the poet’s. Like the (rejected) turning point on Owen’s roof, this moment brings the narrator and subject closer, preparing readers for the complete intertwining of their storylines that will occur by the end of the novel.
Luiselli creates a full world around Owen’s early life in New York, complete with friendships with Federico García Lorca and Joshua Zvorksy (a fictionalized Louis Zukofsky), as well as Owen’s later years in Philadelphia, when he suffered from blindness and the belief that he had died multiple times. During Owen’s wanderings around New York he stumbles upon Homer Collyer, a fellow blind man (and one of the two main characters in E.L. Doctorow’s 2009 novel, Homer and Langley). In a conversation about Owen’s attempts at writing novels, Homer says, “If you dedicate your life to writing novels, you’re dedicating yourself to folding time.” Owen disagrees. “I think it’s more a matter of freezing time,” he argues, “without stopping the movement of things, a bit like when you’re on a train, looking out of the window.” Here, Luiselli weaves together her own philosophy—“freezing time” standing in for “deep excavations”—with the novel’s predilection for subterranean encounters in a way that feels deft, not contrived.
Late in the novel, Owen thinks about the dancer and choreographer José Limón, a fellow native of Sinaloa, who “was brimming with self-confidence, as if he knew in advance that his was a trajectory and not just a life.” This leads Owen to channel the voice of the narrator, essentially his creator, in espousing his disdain for causality: “There are people who are capable of recounting their lives as a sequence of events that lead to a destiny. If you give them a pen, they write you a horribly boring novel in which each line is there for an ultimate reason: everything links up, there are no loose ends.”
Faces in the Crowd does contain such loose ends. What happens to the narrator’s husband? Which version of events is “true”—the husband’s or the wife’s? Who does the narrator see on the subway if it isn’t Owen? But Luiselli is so talented that they don’t matter. When readers reach the end of the hide-and-seek that concludes the novel, the word “Found!” is as satisfying as the denouement of the most plot-driven novel. Homer Collyer insists that “it’s also not unusual that if you’re a novelist, you’re an idiot.” This certainly does not apply to Luiselli. With its preoccupations with identity and narrative structure, Faces in the Crowd introduces American readers to an impressive young talent.
Matthew Duffus is a fiction writer and reviewer. His writing about books has appeared in Rain Taxi, The Critical Flame, and Open Letters Monthly. He lives in North Carolina.
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