Book Highlight: ‘Faces in the Crowd’

The apparition of these faces in the crowd
Petals on a wet, black bough

Besides providing its English title, Ezra Pound’s short yet poignant poem also represents the cryptic imagery used to decipher Mexican-born Valeria Luiselli’s debut novel, Faces in the Crowd (Los ingrávidos) — an English translation of which by Christina MacSweeney has just been released in the United States.

The story centers on a young writer, wife and mother living in present-day New York City, whose life slowly blends with that of a nearly forgotten Mexican-born poet by the name of Gilberto Owen. Luiselli’s narrator tells us about her authorship of a fake translation, her research of and obsession with Owen, and her life as a wife, a mother and, shall we say, a sexually-liberated young woman who sleeps with other secretly but with reckless abandon. When the unnamed narrator discovers Owen’s works and letters and decids to trick her editor into publishing a translation, she begins seeing his face in the subway.

Faces is written almost as a diary, with entries anywhere in length from a few sentences long to a few pages long. The narrator describes this as “Not a fragmented novel. A horizontal novel, narrated vertically.” Later she calls it a “vertical novel told horizontally. A story that as to be seen from below, like Manhattan from the subway.” The narrator is always describing the writing of this book — her husband reads pages of the manuscript and asks how much of it is truth — and this metafiction is used to brilliant effect by disarming the reader. We can’t really be sure whether what the narrator is telling us has actually happened, which makes the magic realism of later sections all the more acceptable. Nothing is as it seems, so when the two lives begin to melt together, we take as being part of the natural chaos of the story.

Appearances by Owen occur more and more frequently as the narrator’s obsession with him deepens, and the storytelling increasingly alternates between the narrator and Owen himself, who speaks to us from the past. His accounts are dominated by his poetry discussions with Frederico Garcia Lorca and Joshua Zvorsky (heavily based on the real-life Louis Zukofsky). Luiselli draws on her own knowledge of Owen’s work and Lorca’s life in the Big Apple to narrate bits from Owen’s perspective. His accounts shift between his early days in Harlem during its Renaissance and his later life in Philadelphia in the late 1940s, when he begins losing his eyesight. But rather than being stricken with a blindness of the everyday sort, Owen suffers from what he terms “unblindness,” or “the opposite of the opposite” of blindness. He both cannot see and can see all too well.

Owen also seems obsessed with death and disappearing. “[T]here are a lot of deaths in the course of a lifetime,” Owen tells us. “Most people don’t notice. They think you die once and that’s it. But you only have to pay a bit of attention to realize that you go and die every so often.” The Mexican poet explains how he began weighing himself in the summer of 1928, “to see if I’d died the day before.” He notices that, though he isn’t getting any thinner, he is definitely losing weight. By the time he speaks to us from the late 1940s, he hardly weighs three pounds. As with the female narrator, Owen’s account of disappearing and dying multiple deaths is first taken as imagination or allegory on Owen’s part, that is until he begins to see the narrator and her personal items appearing in his world, too.

Luiselli’s bouncy prose makes for a very quick read. Plus she shows incredible surefootedness as an author, the writing light yet firm, each word and sentence falling on the page with purpose. Of course, what I read was an English translation by MacSweeney, so some might argue where most of the credit should be placed in terms of prose. Though MacSweeney undoubtedly did her best to capture Luiselli’s style and textuality, in the end there are things English can do that Spanish can’t, and vice versa. Luckily, I’ve had the privilege of hearing Luiselli read excerpts of Faces, in Spanish, and in the flesh, and I can assure you MacSweeney has succeeded not only in showcasing Luiselli’s story but her voice, as well.

Though you might expect a book about poets and disappearing to be stuffy, the writing maintains its accessibility throughout the book. Faces in the Crowd tackles poetics and personhood with sharp wit, erudition and insight. Luiselli’s novel begins rather calmly but quickly gains momentum, finally coming to a close at full tilt. All of this, combined with its driving prose, left me wanting more. I can’t wait to read the next novel written by this exciting young writer.

[Photo: Hector Alamo]