Latam Booklook: "Faces in the Crowd" by Valeria Luiselli

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Reality and fiction are intermingled in this narration of a woman who is slowly getting along and whose life mixes with Gilberto Owen, the Mexican poet

Latam Booklook: "Faces in the Crowd" by Valeria Luiselli

What is it about?

There are two characters: one is a woman, kleptomaniac and a liar, who recounts her life in New York as an editor and translator, and her life as the mother of a middle child and a baby; another is the alcoholic and divorced Gilberto Owen, a Mexican poet of the twentieth century, who tells about his days in Manhattan in the years of the Great Depression and about his last days in Philadelphia when he was already going blind. All these stories happen at the same time, interspersed, superimposed, separated only by an asterisk.

With this structure, Faces in the Crowd (Sixth Floor, 2011) is built from fragments, some dealing with anecdotes, others about writing, some are dialogues and almost none more than one page long. As the protagonist says, "I have a baby and a middle child, they do not let me breathe, everything I write is - it has to be - short breath." It's like reading small entries in a newspaper, only in this case are not confidences, but stories of ghosts or, better, two characters in the process of getting excited.

As it advances, the woman and her stories about her lovers, about her friends and the falsification of a manuscript are disappearing, becoming shorter, while the voice of Owen, which is the double and the woman's ghost, opens up. Thus, he begins to talk about Lorca and other poets, about his gatherings and experiences of a clutch. We never know if it is the manuscripts that the woman falsifies or if it is the life that she begins to live in her head the more afflicted she is. It is a story that does not leave one on firm ground, one floats between words, like a weightless one.

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Who wrote it?

Valeria Luiselli grew up in the uprooting, at least geographically. Her family moved to Wisconsin when she was 2 and, from then on, her life was continually displaced by her father's diplomatic office: South Korea, South Africa, Costa Rica, and India were some of the places where she lived. Just after the latter, where was the boarding school where she studied, decided to go to Mexico to study philosophy at the UNAM. "I decided that I should return to Mexico and become Mexican," she told The New York Times.

Currently, she lives between New York and Mexico City. She has published five books, which vary between novels and essays, or a combination of both. Her latest book, Lost Children Archive, was originally written in English, another demonstration that her feet are not only between the US and Mexico but also between two languages. She has written articles for American magazines such as The New Yorker or Dazed & Confused and others from the Hispanic world such as Letras Libres or Etiqueta. Finally, she has won the American Book Award (2018) and the Metropolis Bleu (2016).

Do I read it or not?

Yes, I recommend it, without hesitation. In a world in which the voices are fragmentary, the short episodes and the life of two characters are built as we witness their disappearance, there are two ideas that give great literary strength to this novel whose narration becomes increasingly immaterial.

On the one hand, Luiselli builds what she calls a vertical novel, that is, a novel that is not read with chronological and organized timelines, one that reads like looking at the sky in which many things happen at once, at different times, but all interwoven, all understandable in their different logic. What is surprising is the clarity left in the reader of what is happening, who speaks and how she is referring to a specific time. This she does by bringing up objects, characters and even references used previously. Thus, the management of several times is not confusing, but it builds a precise atmosphere to understand how someone becomes anxious.

On the other hand, not only the characters disappear little by little, but the language is losing its materiality. Initially, the bridges and the details of what the characters comment have solidity, the thread that unites their words, the earthly logic behind them is evident. But this is lost as it goes, the observations are not guided by the follow-up of an idea, but by fragments thrown on other pages, the words become shorter and less meaningful, and the boundaries between the different times are gone blurring. In this logic of the disappearance, we are not only witnesses of how the characters disintegrate, but also how in their words they become the ghost of the other. That is, they do not become the same person, but the same empty space, without a body.

If you want to experience the process of disappearing with the characters, without knowing where you are or the time you are in, this book may be for you.


LatinAmerican Post | Juan Gabriel Bocanegra

Copy edited by Vanesa López Romero