My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The honest critic must be content to find a VERY LITTLE contemporary work worth serious attention; but he must also be ready to RECOGNIZE that little, and to demote work of the past when a new work surpasses it.
—Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
Faces in the Crowd is Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli’s first novel, published in Spanish in 2011 and in Christine MacSweeney’s English translation in 2014. The English translation is named for Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”—the Spanish title, by contrast, translates to The Weightless—and the novel can be read as a tribute to modernism. Like the modernists, Luiselli writes in fragments organized by mood and meaning rather than plot; and like the modernists, she is committed to both the evanescent self and the modern city through which it drifts. If her first novel is not entirely successful, if it is too emblematic of the present’s will-to-curation and cleverness, it is not for lack of intelligence.
Faces in the Crowd tells two stories as one. The main narrator is a young mother of two in a troubled marriage to an architect; she lives in Mexico City, and she is writing a fictionalized reminiscence of her younger days in New York City when she worked for a publisher of translated literature. Because of her childcare duties, she explains, her novel will have a fragmented form:
Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.
Consequently, the novel is divided into very brief sub-divisions, few longer than a page.
For the novel’s first half, Luiselli divides the narrative between the main narrator in Mexico City, whose husband is becoming increasingly suspicious of what he reads over her shoulder, and the narrator’s New York past. In New York, she had been friends with a variety of urban artist types I have already forgotten—too much of this part of the book reads like hipster-hijinks Brooklyn indie comedy, ready to be filmed with Greta Gerwig in the lead. On top of that, the fractured storytelling ensures that we never get to know Moby, Salvatore, Dakota, and the rest in any but the broadest outlines since we spend so little time with them. Nevertheless, the heroine’s job at the publishing house and her conversations with White, her editor, allow Luiselli to situate her own work not only biographically—she was a new mother when she wrote it, like the narrator—but also within the sociology of literary markets:
Weren’t you a friend of Bolaño? White shouted from his desk (I worked at a small desk beside his, so the shouting was unnecessary but it made him feel like a real editor). He took a long drag on his cigarette and continued in the same mode: Haven’t you got any letters from him or an interview or something we could publish? he shouted. No, White, I never met him. Shame. Did you hear that, Minni? We have the honor of working with the only Latin American woman who wasn’t a friend of Bolaño. Who’s he, chief? asked Minni, who never knew anything about anything. He’s the most popular dead Chilean writer ever. His name gets dropped more than coins into a wishing well.
Eventually, she tries to get her translations of the real-life early-20th-century Mexican poet Gilberto Owen published, passing them off as rediscovered translations by his American friend Zvorsky (really a fictionalized Louis Zukofsky).
From there, the narrator abandons her memoir-like fiction about her own past and composes instead a neo-modernist city novel—though still intercut with her own present—about Owen’s life in America. Owen narrates in the first person, and his own story has two temporal levels: the “present” of his section of the novel is the 1940s, when he is a Mexican consul in Philadelphia, alcoholic, divorced, and going blind; from this dismal vantage, he recalls his glory days in the 1920s, when he spent his time in Harlem drinking and writing with Lorca, Zukofsky, Nella Larsen, and others. Throughout the novel, Owen and the narrator have been seeing each other in the subway, just as Ezra Pound supposedly saw the ghost of his dead friend in the metro, prompting the epochal poem that gives this novel its English title.
Is all the foregoing the reverie of a house-bound mother, regretting the artistic life she was not able to lead? That would make the novel a somewhat standard political statement, but Luiselli has metaphysical ambitions. The end of the novel distinctly implies—in what I believe is a nod to one of Luiselli’s major precursors in the Mexican novel, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo—that all of the characters are dead and are interacting as ghosts in an afterlife of picturesque urban desolation. Rather than the clear utterance of a single narrator, the mother in Mexico City, the novel becomes a Möbius strip whose narrators and narratives pass through and into each other almost imperceptibly until the final sentences, when Owen and the narrator seem on the cusp of discovering how they have haunted each other. The novel’s last line has the force of a riddle’s solution—it is worthy of Nabokov.
Faces in the Crowd is ingeniously conceived, but also a bit of a mixed achievement. As I said above, the whole strand of the plot set in the narrator’s New York past comes to seem extraneous—what do we need all of its quirky characters for? And the section on the narrator’s present life generates and then squanders the suspense of her husband’s increasing suspicion. The narrator’s young son, moreover, has the worst raison d’être for any fictional child—he was invented, alas, to say The Darnedest Things, which he does for the novel’s entire length:
What’s your book about, Mama?
It’s a ghost story.
Is it frightening?
No, but it’s a bit sad.
Why? Because the ghosts are dead?
No, they’re not dead.
Then they’re not very ghosty.
And the obtrusive and portentous metafictional asides (“A dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart,” “A vertical novel told horizontally”) are the sort of thing that should be edited out of a first novel.
More seriously, Faces in the Crowd‘s reflection on the status of Mexican literature and identity will perhaps read oddly or even offensively to U.S. readers; it relies on Owen’s racial typology, never notably contradicted by the novel overall, which positions the Mexican uncomfortably between the abstract “Swedes” and the earthy “blacks” who seem to divide what he calls “the United Estates” between them. The real-life figure of Nella Larsen comes to serve as the novel’s symbol for this polarity—
Nella Larsen was a writer. She was also Danish and a mulatta. In that sense, she was a walking, wiggling paradox who united the two characteristics that separated the Owens from the Federicos of this world: the Swede and the African, the world of the whites and the world of the blacks, what was not mine and what was not his. That to which we both aspired in a culture incapable of absorbing us.
—though Larsen’s own assessment of her conflicted cultural and social position, particularly in her extraordinary first novel Quicksand, is far more rational than Owen’s racial mysticism would suggest. Does Luiselli share Owen’s hoary theory about Ice People and Sun People and the poor Latins in between? Hard to say—though the narrator’s own depictions of African-American characters earlier in the novel (“[she] screamed, You madafaka, then beat his face with the chicken leg”) hint that she is not deploying stereotype as critically as she might.
In any case, the purely literary problem here is less essentialism or racialism than their likely source in Luiselli’s nostalgia for modernism. She may mock the Bolaño trend, but it is probably underpinned by the same nostalgia, and this is not to mention Enrique Vila-Matas, author of the Joyce-worshipping Dublinesque, who provides a lavish back-cover blurb; nor is this post-postmodern curation of modernism confined to Spanish-language contemporary writing, as we know from the autofiction and flânerie vogues in post-Sebaldian Anglophone fiction. This is not to disparage modernism, but to question the vitality of a literary period that is providing annotations to the last major high point in western literature rather than attempting to create new forms—which is what the modernists themselves were trying to do. If they looked to the past, it was to transfigure it, not to imitate it. Faces in the Crowd warns in its epigraph, quoted from The Kaballah, “If you play at ghosts, / you become one.”