Faces in the Crowd
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map for this conceptually complex work of fiction, which comes in a petite, 144-page package. Ms. Luiselli was born in Mexico City, though her father’s diplomatic post brought them to countries like South Korea, South Africa, or India. She now lives in New York City.
Both books spend a great deal of time in subways and cemeteries asking philosophical questions, like what happens to language if you are disappearing? Why write to sustain life like Scheherazade in 1001 Nights? Why not write from death to life? Keeping in mind the Mexican rites on the Day of the Dead, when altars are built to the departed, it’s oddly appropriate that Ms. Luiselli should find in the New York subway a perfect setting for a classical “nekyia” rite, a descent into the underworld to ask ghosts about the future.
The title is taken from Ezra Pound’s fourteen-word Imagist poem titled “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough.” The unnamed female character (hilariously catty, telling fibs and swiping things from friends) unreliably narrates Pound’s shock after seeing his friend, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, in a train station in Haarlem, a month after he died in a trench at Neuville St. Vaast. “The doors of the train car opened and he saw the face of his friend appear among the people.” Pound pruned the poem down to an essential image that was “as brief as his dead friend’s appearance, exactly as startling.” This image and this style inaugurate Ms. Luiselli’s novel, which breathes life into the famous Mexican poet and diplomat, Gilberto Owen, who died in Philadelphia half blind and in a delirium tremens, in 1952.
Faces in the Crowd is told in two voices, three cities, and four temporal planes. The narrator’s present, living in Mexico City with her husband and two children, simply named “the boy” and “baby,” sets the framework narrative. She is in the process of writing a novel about when she was a young Bohemian and assistant editor in New York, obsessed with the poetry of Gilberto Owen. Feeling displaced and alienated, she had found solace in his book of poems, Obras. Owen experienced the heyday of the Haarlem Renaissance, when Duke Ellington was swinging and García Lorca writing his famous “Poet in New York,” before the market crashed in 1929.
Fast forward again to the present in Mexico City, where our writer is struggling with motherhood, trying to take up the project she had left unfinished so long ago. Like Emily Dickinson, she is unable to leave her home. When she goes into baby’s room, she knows she’ll “catch my smell and shiver in her cot, because some secret place in her body is teaching her to demand part of what belongs to us both, the threads that sustain and separate us.” The children’s diapers and toys fill her writing space, they don’t let her breathe. A novel requires sustained breath but she is short of it, so everything she writes “is—has to be—in short bursts.” She will write “a silent novel, so as not to wake the children.”
Back when she still lived in New York, she had tried to convince the editor she worked for, Mr. White, to publish translations of Owen’s poems and drop his monomaniacal quest to find the next Bolaño. So she forged an original document with her artist friend Moby, and tried to pass her own translations off as if they were those of the Objectivist poet, Louis Zukovsky. Just before the books are sent off to print, she confesses to the hoax, losing her job and ruining the editor’s reputation in one fell swoop.
So she took to snooping around the building where Gilberto Owen had lived, and at one point sees someone she could have sworn looks just like him. She found a dead orange tree in a pot on the rooftop, which she stole and brought home. She wrote notes about him on post-its and stuck them to the dead branches, creating a tree of life. When the branches were teeming with her notes, she would “gather them up as they fell and write the story of Owen’s life in that same order.”
In Mexico, the notes are now stuck to her wall. Her son reads them. Her husband asks how many people she had sex with back then. They are the notes of a breathless mother with shadows under her eyes, and they begin to tell her own story, her writing diary, every day scenes, circumscribed by the moment, but yet holding a lingering element, a phonetic or symbolic thread that moves the story forward. “It all began in another city and another life,” she writes. “I would have liked to start the way Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ends.” She remembers her pregnancies, when she was so large she used to drag herself “like a sea lion along the wood floor.” She will write “a dense, porous novel like a baby’s heart.”
She remembers reading in a Bellow book that the difference between being alive and dead is a matter of perspective; “the living look from the center outwards, the dead from the periphery to some sort of center.” So she now channels Owen’s voice, who narrates his own novel in the first person: “This is how it starts: it all happened in another city and another life. It was the summer of 1928.” And continues, “I would have liked to start the way Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up begins.” Instead of reality imposing itself on fiction, fiction begins to take on its own life, to breathe beneath the surface. “A horizontal novel, told vertically. A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within,” she writes. She’s sure she’s seen his face this time.
The Vorticist center of the novel comes when the parallel stories converge in time and space, two trains running on parallel tracks synchronize for a moment before breaking again to follow their own trajectories. She sees his face, he sees hers, and their phantasmagorical reflections in the windows superimpose. From that point on, they become like voices on the page, weightless, echoes over time, locked in a shadowy Möbius strip. “The ghost, it was obvious, was me,” she writes. “A vertical novel told horizontally. A story that has to be seen from below, like Manhattan from the subway.”
In a wink to Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames,” in which the character travels to the future to see if his books have lasted over time, one of Jorge Luis Borges’s favorite stories, Owen recounts the next vision of the woman in the train. He can just make out the title of the book she’s reading; Obras. Owen writes notes for a novel “narrated in the first person, by a tree, a woman with a brown face and dark shadows under her eyes.” The novel closes with an earthquake.
When Granta published its Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists issue in 2010, Ms. Luiselli hadn’t yet published fiction or she might have been included. The novel is a stunning example of the type of writing that is currently coming out of Latin America: formal innovation, cosmopolitanism, and a renewed exploration of the twentieth century avant-garde.
Writing from death to life instead of from life to death allows risks; to dare, why not? Audacious, conceptually cutting edge, Faces in the Crowd is, among other things, an allegory for the writing process itself, how words as empty vessels take on significance in the hands of a talented writer. Words that shape mental holograms, breathe life into the inanimate; allow us to inhabit the spaces of our own lives. A modern carpe diem, or ubi sunt, the novel prompts the sort of strange disquiet conveyed by Emily Dickinson’s famous line; “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”