Though I wasn't aware of Valeria Luiselli before preparations began for WITMonth, the closer we got to August the more posts and reviews of her books began cropping up on my radar. The praise was overwhelming - recognition of her prose, her style and her clever writing. I knew that I'd have to read one of her books (both translated by Christina MacSweeney), and so I opted for the novel - Faces in the Crowd.
Here I must admit to being a little less enamored than most other reviewers. I appreciated a lot of what Luiselli tried to do in her slim little book and recognize the literary talent behind it, yet truthfully I found much of it a bit tedious and, despite its short length, long-winded. Faces in the Crowd is comprised of short blurbs (sometimes only a sentence) that cover alternating stories: a young translator in New York, a mother of two writing in Mexico, and a writer in the US in the early 20th century. These three narratives overlap (particularly near the end) in what can only be described as "fiction wrapped in fiction". Luiselli takes some level of pride in her unreliable narrative - the seeming "frame" story (of the mother) is often contradicted by her husband, yet her husband in each of these stories is himself a fictional character... contradicting his fictional aspects.
This turns the entire story into an extremely meta form of fiction. There is no objective truth, because everything is a fiction. There is no clear character, because none seem to exist. While certain figures remain as fixtures (the boy, for example, remains constant throughout the mother's story, as does his baby sister), others are built fluidly and vaguely. It's unclear who the narrator of the modern New York story is - it starts out as the mother, then merges with the 1920s. Meanwhile, the husband (perhaps the most fictional character of all) decries these stories as pure fantasy (lies), but in one segment he "shouts" this, and in the next asks why his wife wrote those words down, he never actually said them.
All of these fragments are interspersed with little notes on Gilberto Owen, a poet with whom the translator/mother is obsessed with. Owen himself only becomes a main character when his own narrative enters the story (relatively late in the book), and it was at this point that I found my attention slipping. His stories felt repetitive and looped, with lots of name dropping and fictional name dropping that didn't really further the story. His perspective of course casts a lot of doubt on the other story as it overlaps more and more, but I found it... less convincing. I felt that Owen's story could have been presented differently, and though it's obviously a brilliant piece of writing, it didn't really hold my interest so well.
When it comes to the writing though... this book reigns. Faces in the Crowd has some of the best styling of any book I've read in a long time, with some truly brilliant ideas and riffs and games. The writing is quick, deceptive, clever and extremely put-together, with a sense of control that is fairly rare in books of this sort. It's also deceptively simple: short sentences, sure, but they form to create a confusing, complex landscape. Plus, there's this brilliant riff that repeats itself throughout the book: "A horizontal novel, narrated vertically". Luiselli constantly references the shape and format of this novel (or is it the fictional novel...?) in beautiful phrases that I wanted to frame and mount on the wall.
It comes down to this: there were some major aspects that frustrated me with Faces in the Crowd, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a fairly brilliant book. I didn't like all of it and also find fault in some of its more ambitious attempts, but the writing is very, very good and the ideas - though flawed - create a narrative that is both interesting and distinct. And while it took me a long time to get through it, this is not a particularly heavy, difficult read, yet it is quite rewarding. Definitely worthwhile.