[Coffee House Press, 2014. 154 pages. $15.95]
Reviewed by Sarah Stanley
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli is a masterfully structured meta-fictional story that crosses the line between fact and fiction, navigating three different timelines and switching between two first-person storytellers: a female narrator who is writing a book about her past, and a male narrator who is the female narrator’s conception of deceased Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen. As the novel moves forward, we discover a woman hiding from her real life through her research and past while losing her sense of self. This is a novel about writing at its core, that’s intriguing and entertaining through all its structural complexities.
The novel is told through instances, rather than chapters, that range from a single sentence to a few pages long. In the first half of the novel, these instances jump back and forth between the narrator’s present and her past. In the present, she lives in a house with her husband and two children (“the boy” and “the baby”) while working on her novel. In the past, which we soon learn is the novel she’s writing, she lives in a bare apartment with various acquaintances coming in and out, and makes a living translating the works of Gilberto Owen. While a careful reader could differentiate between “then” and “now” based on past or present tense, Luiselli makes these transitions even smoother by using certain words that we quickly learn to associate with each time frame. When she mentions “the house,” for example, we know right away it’s the present, whereas “the apartment” is always in the past. She uses the characters in the same way; those who are identified by labels (my husband, the boy, our neighbor) live in her present, and characters with interesting backstories and colorful names (Moby, Pajarote, Dakota, Salvatore) populate her past.
The characters from the narrator’s past aren’t well-developed in the sense that we understand the inner workings of their minds, but Luiselli manages to make them incredibly vivid through strange distinct details. Dakota, one of the many characters who spends time in the narrator’s apartment, is a singer who does vocal exercises lying on the floor with her head in the narrator’s blue mopping bucket. Pajarote, another unofficial roommate, is a very serious philosophy student who never complains about anything except, “the way non-Spanish speakers were always trying to put either a hard j or a wimpish h in the middle of his name.” These characters give us some insight into a narrator who is otherwise fairly distant. We see who she was as a young woman because of the people she surrounded herself with and the ways in which she interacted with them.
Aside from her interactions with peripheral characters, the narrator has a few distinct attributes that give us a glimpse at her own character. There’s the red coat and gray tights that we always see her wearing in the past instances. There’s the passion in her researching Gilberto Owen, to the point where the first half of the novel is peppered with snippets of his life. She includes factual information about him, such as how he worked in the Mexican consulate in New York in the 1920’s. She also includes information that supports the theme of disappearing and loss of self, mirroring how she feels. Owen thought he was literally disintegrating, because he would weigh himself before taking the train every day and seemed to be losing weight. Almost everything that defines her personality, from her coat to her work, happens in the past instances, which adds to this feeling that she’s losing sight of herself (disintegrating, like Owen) among the responsibilities of being a wife and mother.
As the story goes on, this “loss of self” worsens and the structure becomes more complex. Her husband starts to read her novel and asks questions, offended by the information about her past sexual experiences, even though she lies to him and tells him the novel is fiction. This, paired with his impending business trip to Philadelphia, subtly shows the reader that their marriage is falling apart.This happens about halfway through the novel and here is where there is a distinct shift, and when there is a reflection on the narrator’s life. “The narrator discovers that while she is stringing the tale, the mesh of her reality wears thin and breaks. The fiber of fiction begins to modify reality and not vice versa, as it should be. Neither of the two can be sacrificed. Write what really happened and what did not.”
The next instance is the beginning of the narrator’s new novel, with a first person voice quickly recognized as Gilberto Owen’s, similar to the original narrator’s, but more verbose. “This is how it starts: it all happened in another city and another life. It was the summer of 1928. I was working as a clerk in the Mexican consulate in New York…” These instances begin to take over and though the original narrator continues telling some instances in her own voice, they become less frequent and more abstract as the novel goes on.
It’s not completely clear why the narrator is disappearing behind Owen’s voice until an instance where her son asks her, “Who are you hiding from, Mama? From Papa?” Like many of Luiselli’s other instances, there is a lack of context, and all the reader can take from this instance is its metaphorical meaning, so they realize that the narrator is using Gilberto Owen’s voice to “hide” in some way. And perhaps this is what all stories are for—a way for the writer to hide and the reader to escape.
Early on in the novel, the narrator says, “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,” and this is exactly what Luiselli accomplishes in her debut novel, Faces in the Crowd. The story is both fragmented and dense, and though it can be confusing, the reader remains engaged as they look for this narrator who hides among the holes on the page. And even if they cannot find her, they are able to escape into this fascinating factual/fictional world she has created, inhabited by ghosts, dead poets, and people who may or may not exist.
Like what you see? Check out the book here.