There’s a young mother in Mexico City who’s writing a novel about the time she spent working as a translator and living in New York. Her narrative encompasses her work, her love for literature, and the most personal details of her life as a nursing mother, family epicenter, and wife.
In Harlem, a bit earlier, a translator is trying hard to convince her boss to publish the works of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Mexican poet. She inhabits the city as well as Owen’s work until the two seem to become inextricably tied.
In Philadelphia, years ago, poet Gilberto Owen recalls his friendship with Spanish poet Federico García Lorca and the attractive young woman he keeps seeing in the windows of passing trains.
Then, unexpectedly, these three storylines, despite the space and time that stands between them, become one. This braided narrative trifecta is what makes Valeria Luiselli’s debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, an outstanding, cerebral read that bridges the gap between poetry and prose and clearly positions the author as one of the freshest, most exciting new voices emerging from Latin American literature.
The beauty of Faces in the Crowd lies in the fact that Luiselli slowly dissolves time and other boundaries like language and geography until the three stories seem to occupy the same space, and she somehow pulls it off while retaining the natural chronological progression of each individual story. The result is a novel that demands attention and forces the reader to focus on character interactions, minuscule details, and the dissolution of preconceived notions and reality. The writing here starts out normal, but then morphs into a combination of philosophical morsels, a study of the young artist as a woman, an exploration of the effects of tedium on marriage, and a daring experiment that stretches the boundaries of literary fiction until it overlaps with fantasy, poetry, biography, and surrealism. Also, just like most relevant novels, this is about writing:
I go back to writing the novel whenever the I’m not busy with the children. I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.
While Luiselli’s prose is beautiful, it also possesses a surprisingly brutal honesty that allows the narrative to fluctuate between elements like metaphysical ponderings and the study of language to much more physical things like walking and breastfeeding. This thematic richness, coupled with the fact that the text is a collection of fragments and flashbacks, propels the narrative forward at breakneck speed while ensuring that the reader is always entertained, always challenged and forced to disentangle the three narratives as they coalesce.
Luiselli is clearly aware of the fact that great literature seldom comes from a vacuum, so she embraces her positionality to bring her culture and gender to the forefront. I first encountered Luiselli through Sidewalks, a book of essays published simultaneously with Faces in the Crowd. Both books share an interest in identity, the city as playscape, and the possibilities offered by language. However, while the author’s essays tend to be almost academic in their cultured references and favor deconstruction over experimentation, her fiction is playful and brave, willing to go where storytelling rarely treads and given to bursts of thoughtful insights that make this novel a treat:
There’s nothing so ill advised as attributing a metonymic value to inanimate things. If you think the condition of a plant in a pot is a reflection of the condition of your soul, or worse, that of a loved one, you’ll be condemned to disillusion and perpetual paranoia.
Also deserving attention is Christina MacSweeney’s terrific translation of this novel. MacSweeny not only stayed true to Luiselli’s voice but also expertly managed those instances in which the only way to allow the text to retain its original and very unique voice was to let the Spanish words remain embedded in the narrative.
With its combination of biographical data and unique storytelling, Faces in the Crowd comfortably walks the line between fact and fiction. That Luiselli was able to produce such a nuanced narrative in that complicated interstitial space is a testament to her talent and a promise of great literature to come.