Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, Mexico
Coffee House Press
Early in Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, she offers an explanation — of sorts — for the format of her book, a format that exists if not in service of her style, than alongside it, a fellow-traveler on the book’s quest.
Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.
This is a stand-alone paragraph, in its entirety, set apart from its predecessor and successor by several line breaks. And so the book unfolds in a series of observations and stories contained in paragraphs that more often that not relate to each other, but not always, much like the way the human mind functions. Its both trite and lazy to assert that this fracturing of ideas is a grotesque symptom of contemporary society, that we’re all beset by so many forms of media, by so many voices and concerns and assaults on our attention that we’re incapable of focusing on any one thought for more than a few minutes. And it’s especially trite and lazy because it presumes that people in different times and places were passive lumps of clay for whom the notion of multi-tasking, even intellectually if not physically, was an outright impossibility. It also smacks of nostalgia. All of which I say in order to say what I what to say about this book: it is all things. The structure and style, the jumping back and forth between past and present, accomplishes something mesmerizing: it paints a truly believable and empathetic and insightful portrait of life. It grabs hold of and dissects and analyzes life in all of its multifaceted glory and misery and whatever falls in between. But do not allow yourself to believe that this is a novel merely about contemporary life. No. It’s a novel about life. Full stop.
As fractured as I’m perhaps suggesting this book is, I want to make it clear the book as a whole doesn’t feel the slightest bit fractured. The paragraphs, as the book progresses, talk to each other. Stories from the narrator’s youth in New York unfold in between observations and stories of her current situation, mostly the detailed descriptions of her domestic life and how it informs not only her writing, but her ever-evolving outlook on the world at large. At one point she tells the story of Ezra Pound stripping down a poem from pages and pages of lines to what would eventually become “In a Station of the Metro.” It’s touching and literarily charming (I am a total sucker for anything related to Pound) and offers what might qualify as a manifesto in the context of this book: the idea that adornment or imparted symbolism or anything along those lines should be excised without mercy, so as to get to the heart of the thing. She follows through on her manifesto by not overpopulating the book, by keeping the narrative trajectories fairly straightforward. The result is that the important characters, the important places, have space to assert themselves, to become well-rounded and memorable. This idea also allows for stories to be revisited and re-positioned as new memories are injected into the narrative, creating, in the end, a story that has itself morphed over the course of the book, a story that comments on itself, saying, it seems: this is life; no more, no less.* * *
The following is taken from another brilliant book, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, in which she, too recognizes the inherent beauty in the quotidian. And I’m including it here in support of my argument on behalf of this book because, well, because why not.
The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margins, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.
In the first sentence of this post, I mentioned the book’s quest. Here’s the thing: although there is a quest, there is no quest to or for any specific thing. No objective, no overarching morality, no ambition beyond the one that’s sitting front and center: a masterful demonstration that life and art are—or at least can be, and should be more often than they are allowed to be—quests without destinations, without endgames.
It’s no easy feat to do this with such captivating ease, and that’s why I believe this book should win.
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.”
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
Valeria Luiselli ~ Faces in the Crowd
As sinuous and singular a novel as Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (los ingrávidos) is (translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney), it is all the more remarkable on account of it being a debut – and a most assured one at that. The Mexican novelist and essayist’s first fiction entwines multiple narratives and perspectives, shifting between them with the ease and gracefulness of a writer far beyond her years (Faces in the Crowd was published when Luiselli was 28).
The metafictional scaffolding of Faces in the Crowd is seamlessly constructed and its bibliocentric façade entrenches it within a rich tradition of referential Latin American literature. Mexican poet Gilberto Owen figures prominently into the multi-threaded plot that concerns a literary translator-cum-novelist. Owen himself narrates a great deal of Luiselli’s story, encountering along the way the likes of Ezra Pound, García Lorca, William Carlos Williams, Nella Larsen, and Duke Ellington. Though separated by more than a half-century, the characters’ lives appear to embrace as Luiselli plays with notions of temporal fidelity.
Faces in the Crowd, beyond its gorgeous writing and superb composition, is modest yet striking, measured yet salient. Luiselli is quite clearly a gifted writer and with the concurrent publication of her essay collection, Sidewalks, she ought to be garnering some much-deserved attention. Given the evident range of her myriad literary talents, it will be most interesting to see what comes next.
*Earlier last week, the National Book Foundation named Luiselli one of 2014’s 5 Under 35 (as selected by Karen Tei Yamashita).
**The Story of My Teeth, Luiselli’s second novel will be published by Granta in 2015.
Bohumil Hrabal ~ Harlequin’s Millions
Set in a “little town where time stood still,” Bohumil Hrabal’s Harlequin’s Millions (translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht) is an elegantly written work of reminiscence and remembrance. Full of exquisite, expressive prose, the late Czech writer’s novel features an aged female protagonist/narrator reflecting on years past and moments elapsed. Hrabal’s rhythmic sentences and chapter-length paragraphs reveal the nameless lead’s life story (personally, politically, and professionally) – as well as those of her husband, Francin, and his older brother, Pepin. Their dalliances as residents in a local castle-cum-retirement home alternate between the wistful and the jubilant.
While touched by moments of melancholy, Hrabal’s tale tends more towards the nostalgic than the languid or rueful. As the titular song “Harlequin’s Millions” plays unendingly throughout the castle grounds, melodic memories of the novel’s richly drawn characters unfurl as well. Harlequin’s Millions is an evocative tale of aging that effortlessly mingles the bitter and the sweet.
Milena Michiko Flašar ~ I Called Him Necktie
A rhythmic, melodically paced novel of sorrow and rumination, I Called Him Necktie (translated from the German by Sheila Dickie) is an unassuming literary gem. Written by Milena Michiko Flašar, a young Japanese/Austrian novelist, the story features two main characters (Taguchi, a 20-something hikikomori, and Ohara, a late middle-aged former businessman) each suffering from a self-imposed alienation and existential denial. As they slowly become acquainted with one another, these two vividly composed protagonists begin to open up and reveal all they’ve been unable to share with those closest to them. Taguchi and Ohara recount their respective hardships, disappointments, and losses, finding both solace and wisdom in each other’s perspective.
Flašar’s doleful tale explores the interconnectedness of lives and the reliance we have on others in times of need. The sentiment expressed in I Called Him Necktie is genuine and tenderly portrayed. Never maudlin, even for an instant, Flašar’s empathetic, compassionate story hums with sincerity and grace. The first of Flašar’s works to appear in English translation, I Called Him Necktie is an unforgettable novel that effortlessly plumbs the depths of human emotion – exposing a rich vein of mercy amidst the pervading malaise.
Our thirty-first match of the first ever World Cup of Literature features two amazing books written in Spanish: one by a revered, now dead author, the other by a young upstart; one by a man, one by a woman; one from Chile, the other from Mexico; one focused on a singular narrative voice, the other featuring a few storylines that mingle and merge; both published by high-minded, well-respected independent presses (New Directions and Coffee House).
Rather than go on about these books, or the competition itself, I’ll just say that we’re probably going to replicate this for the Women’s World Cup next summer, but featuring only women writers. So stay tuned!
But for now, let’s get it on: Bolaño vs. Luiselli!
George Carroll: Mexico
Yedlin, Green, James, Neymar, Besler. I’m going with youth. The future of the sport. The future of literature. Put me in the Luiselli column.
Chad W. Post: Mexico
Because Bolaño would’ve won in 2002, 2006, 2010, will likely win this match, and has already received enough accolades. Because Luiselli is living. Because more people need to read Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks. And because I have a neurotic love for looking forward and supporting the things that I’m in love with now. Bolaño was one of the greatest authors ever, but I read all these books a while back and am currently in love with Luiselli’s writing.
Nick Long: Mexico
And here we’ve come to a neo-classical World Cup final between the old guard and the fresh-faced promise of the future. A masterpiece by an author dead for over a decade to which the announcers lovingly refer to as “the corpse of Roberto Bolaño” trots out onto to the field to delirious frenzy by the fans—By Night in Chile deserves all the acclaim it’s received. But nothing in the World Cup is ever guaranteed except controversy. And Faces in the Crowd is a more than worthy opponent for this final. Despite restless politicking (isn’t FIFA all about politics and corruption anyway?) and thinly veined satire about the corruption, BNiC kept missing chance after chance. FitC knocked in its sole chance in the match to win in a shocking upset, closing out an era.
Hal Hlavinka: Chile
Mauro Javier Cardenas: Chile
Tom Roberge: Chile
Scott Esposito: Chile
Stephen Sparks: Chile
By Night in Chile was my introduction to Bolano: I read it on a long flight and, after finishing in mid-air, I reread it immediately. Luiselli is very good: Faces in the Crowd might be the best novel I’ve read this year, but I wouldn’t class it in the same category as BNiC.
Rhea Lyons: Chile
Jeff Waxman: Chile
Jeffrey Zuckerman: Mexico
I don’t understand why anybody’s even bothering to ask me for an unbiased opinion. I interviewed Valeria Luiselli and then wrote an extended profile for the LA Review of Books about how her life and her work have merged into each other, and how wonderful both are. I have voted against Bolaño every single round, and this last one is no exception. Valeria Luiselli’s just so much better. This one goes to “a dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart.”
James Crossley: Chile
I really liked Faces in the Crowd and urge more people to read it. Remember when Ben Lerner got all that attention for Leaving the Atocha Station? Luiselli’s book is in some ways similar, but loads better. It’s one of the best books to come out this year, in fact. But By Night in Chile is one of the best books of this millennium. Bolaño should win the 2014 Cup, but I have a feeling I’ll be rooting for Luiselli four years from now.
P.T. Smith: Chile
By Night in Chile and Faces in the Crowd are a similar length, both books that I eye and think “If I time it right, I can finish this in a sitting.” By Night in Chile, with compelling, prose that pushes on and on, I read in one. Faces in the Crowd, fragmented, yet creative, and bringing those fractures together, took three. I cherish those one-sitting readings, and so want novels that aren’t structured to give me reasons to leave. Faces in the Crowd was my discovery of the tournament, and I’ll read Luiselli again, but By Night was a sitting I remember years later, and Faces seems less likely to do the same.
Chris Schaefer: Chile
Laura Radosh: Mexico
Stephen’s right, Faces isn’t in the same class as BNiC, but Luiselli shouldn’t go down like Brazil. Another vote for the future of literature.
Hannah Chute: Mexico
Bolaño is “one of the greats.” But hell, we all knew that before we started this competition. I’m pretty sure the whole point of this project was to highlight interesting, contemporary world literature, and Bolaño winning this isn’t going to help anyone. Faces in the Crowd is a fantastic book; everyone should go out right now to buy it, read it, and cherish the fuck out of it.
Ryan Ries: Chile
There’s an inescapable ad on a local radio station in which the hysterical business owner insists that using his service is “the biggest no-brainer in the history of mankind”. This isn’t quite at that level, but, c’mon.
Trevor Berrett: Chile
Elianna Kan: Chile
Bolaño, nearly no contest, for his unflinching vitality and for passages like this one:
. . . and life went on and on and on, like a necklace of rice grains, on each grain of which a landscape had been painted, tiny grains and microscopic landscapes, and I knew that everyone was putting that necklace on and wearing it, but no one had the patience or the strength or the courage to take it off and look at it closely and decipher each landscape grain by grain, partly because to do so required the vision of a lynx or an eagle, and partly because the landscapes usually turned out to contain unpleasant surprises like coffins, makeshift cemeteries, ghost towns, the void and the horror, the smallness of being and its ridiculous will, people watching television, people going to football matches, boredom navigating the Chilean imagination like an enormous aircraft carrier. And that’s the truth. We were bored. We intellectuals. Because you can’t read all day and all night. You can’t write all day and all night. Splendid isolation has never been our style . . .
Will Evans: Mexico
My vote for the final goes to Faces in the Crowd. This is the voice of a master in training. The voice of an author finding herself, creating herself as she goes along. The themes are universal, the text as intertext, the narrative voice is distinct, the exploration of motherhood is profound, and when it comes down to it I just liked reading it more than By Night in Chile, which I also loved, but for different ways. Maybe it was the strength of translator Christina MacSweeney lifting Luiselli to heights in English hard to fathom. And maybe because I want to crush the patriarchy. Even when the odds are stacked against little old Mexico’s team, the shock team in the final, Luiselli’s novel is strong enough to carry the Mexican people the way El Tri couldn’t quite manage this year, though they gave it everything they had and inspired me and millions more in the process. They say Mexico’s national team is the most popular national team in the USA, and Luiselli is soon to be everybody’s favorite author in the USA too. She is amazing, Faces in the Crowd is brilliant. Props to Coffee House for publishing Luiselli!!!!!!
Kaija Straumanis: Mexico
Copy paste anything I’ve said in the past being pro-Mexico and insert it here. I also agree with what Will says above, and not only because of his mustache. ¡VIVA MEXICO! (Or not. Bolaño-loving jerks.)
Lance Edmonds: Chile
Shaun Randol: Chile
Having refereed Chile’s killer first match and silently cheered them on since, I gotta go with fan loyalty on this one.
Chi Chi Chi! Le Le Le! Viva Chile!
Katrine Jensen: Chile
I’ve helped carry Luiselli’s excellent Faces in The Crowd to a well-deserved spot in the finals; but a wise man I know once wrote on Facebook, “Bolaño always wins,” and to this I must say yes. Yes he does.
Lori Feathers: Mexico
Faces in the Crowd and By Night in Chile are both smart and provocative. But simply put, Faces in the Crowd is a more interesting read.
Florian Duijsens: Chile
What a great surprise, this final battle. I’d imagined it would be a clash of legends, dead authors whose cult has only grown as their posthumous vaults have been methodically cleared these past few years. Ironic, then, that Luiselli’s is a book about ghosts, about seeing literary ghosts and becoming them. Faces in the Crowd is a stunning juggling act of truths and fictions, but ultimately the ghost stories collected in By Night in Chile (also not a very hefty book) weighed heavier on me.
And there you have it: Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile wins the 2014 World Cup of Literature in a rout. Buy it, read it, and enjoy it!
Yesterday’s semifinal—which saw Roberto Bolaño secure a place in the WCL Championship with By Night in Chile —is a tough one to top, but I think we did it. Today’s match features upstart Valeria Luiselli from Mexico, whose first novel, Faces in the Crowd, is up against David Foster Wallace and his posthumous book, The Pale King.
Luiselli got to this match by sliding past the Croatian representative Dubravka Ugresic and her Baba Yaga Laid an Egg 3-2, running rampant over Australia and Murnane’s Barley Patch by a score of 3-0, and cruising past Uruguay and Mario Benedetti’s The Rest Is Jungle 7-0.
DFW started with a tough matchup against Portugal’s Gonçalo Tavares and his novel Jerusalem, but prevailed 3-2. He then took down Belgium’s The Misfortunates by Dimitry Verhulst by a score of 3-1, and just got by France’s Michel Houellebecq and The Map and the Territory, 4-3.
Although DFW is a household name, this one could go either way . . .
Scott Esposito: Mexico
An actual book has to beat some notes hewn together by an editor. So Faces takes it.
Chad W. Post: Mexico
I love DFW, but I think Luiselli deserves a spot in the finals with her incredibly well crafted Faces in the Crowd.
Lance Edmonds: USA
Before the tournament started, I thought Your Face Tomorrow was a lock for the finals. I guess that’s why you play the games.
Tom Roberge: USA
I’m just going to plagiarize myself. “The volume of perspectives in the book, the scope of humanness in these characters, is Wallace’s point: that as interesting as war orphans or autodidact artists or amoral professors are, so are paper pushers, if not for the details of their lives then for the substance of them, for the way they cope with a boredom that is as much a part of modern Western life as sex, war, or free trade. And then borrow a famous blurb for DeLillo’s Underworld, from Michael Ondatje, which I think applies here just as aptly: “The book is an aria and a wolf-whistle of our half century. It contains multitudes.”
Lori Feathers: USA
Faces is a smart book with an interesting structure of doubling back on itself. “Horizontal vertigo,” a phrase that Luiselli uses, is a good description of that structure. But somehow I still felt distanced from the characters’ (or is it really just one character’s?) descent into crazy because the book is over-constructed—like seeing more nails sticking out of a wooden frame than are needed. I didn’t feel trapped in a mad mind like, for instance, reading The Yellow Wallpaper, and that made the narrative less compelling than it could have been.
Laura Radosh: Mexico
After forcing myself to finish Infinite Jest only to find out the joke was on the reader I was sure that another DFW tome would be no match for Faces in the Crowd. But after page 6 of Pale King, I was hooked. That is some fancy footwork. Goal for USA!
But although I appreciate the fact that editor Michael Pietsch resisted cutting out dozens of pages just because his author could no longer object, DFW gets a yellow card for wasting time. Besides, the USA never makes it to the finals in the real World Cup.
Mexico evens the scores for that pretty little book in the last minute of extra time and gets a dramatic win on penalties.
Will Evans: USA
Dude this is cancer-inducing stress. I love Valeria; Faces in the Crowd is great. But I have to vote for DFW. Faces in the Crowd is like a hello to the world from a brilliant new author, the process of an artist finding her voice; and her voice, the only female voice left in the tournament, one of precious few in the entire World Cup of Literature, scored the opening goal for Mexico against the weak American backline (all hype?!), but the Americans pressed, they’d been honed to a veteran’s precision and quickly countered. The Pale King is the final goodbye for a legend, a fully realized literary idea, a narrative voice that is as powerful as it is precise (which one can’t often say of 550-page “unfinished” final novels). These two books slugged it out for the remainder of the game, and it was in DFW’s philosophical musings on the state of twenty-first-century existence that the game winner was scored. Faces in the Crowd packs a punch far greater than its 150 pages, and I would peg Luiselli’s next novel as the odds-on favorite to reach the finals of the 2018 World Cup of Literature, she has many, many, many more World Cups of Literature ahead of her, and this is the last hurrah for DFW, and he makes it to the final by the skin of his teeth. RIP.
Ryan Ries: USA
Mexico is certainly the Cinderella story of this tournament, earning a berth in the semifinals against three world-renowned (and, incidentally, dead) literary powerhouses. And, for the most part, its success is justified: Faces in the Crowd is a spare, punchy little book, impressive in construction and economy, but the reader can’t escape the feeling that you’ve read this all before somewhere (shades of Bolaño, Aira, and, to a lesser extent, Moya, to name a few fellow WCOL competitors). The Pale King isn’t without flaws, but it’s an original, mature, occasionally brilliant work, and it wins the match going away.
P.T. Smith: USA
Faces in the Crowd is a wonderful debut, the discovery of the World Cup of Literature for me, but Pale King scores an early goal with bizarre powers (mind-reading, talking baby, ghosts) of many of its characters without a detachment from reality. Page by page, Faces in the Crowd is more entertaining, rewarding, and rush after rush to the goal is eventually rewarded with an equalizer. The heights of Pale King reach a greater lever though, the tie is preserved and we go to PKs. There, the focus, to attention to detail and ability to accomplish repetitive tasks without fault, serves Pale King and takes it to victory.
Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Mexico
It’s not that Pale King isn’t interesting. It’s not that the book’s Pulitzer nomination isn’t interesting. It’s just . . . I’m recommending Faces In The Crowd to everyone I know. Maybe it’s because that book is more interesting.
Mauro Javier Cardenas: Mexico
Is it because I am not Caucasian American that I don’t light candles to Saint DFW? Probably not. I enjoyed Good Old Neon, parts of Pale King. I can never make it pass page 100 of Infinite Jest due to extreme boredom though. Que le vamos a hacer. Viva Mexico, carajo!
Kaija Straumanis: Mexico
A year or so ago, I was watching TV and wound up seeing a game played by UANL Tigres, a professional Mexican football club. Their uniforms were bright yellow, emblazoned with the logo of their sponsor, which I read as: BANANAMEX. It seemed appropriate. I then spent the next 60 minutes or so shouting “GO BANANA!” and things like “GET ANOTHER BANANA GOAL!” at the television, before I realized that the logo on their banana-yellow jerseys actually read “BANAMEX.” Which is a bank. Not a tropical fruit. Regardless, that night, UANL Tigres became my default favorite soccer team. They aren’t particularly good, they have absolutely nothing to do with bananas, but they have spirit, and they play with heart.
I’m one of the people who was left depressed after Mexico’s loss in the Real World Cup last week. I don’t want to go into the obnoxiousness of statements on how a team “deserves” to win—but Mexico deserved to have a fair ending to that game. And in our World Cup of Literature, where there are no champion floppers and no tasteless fans chanting “Vir-gin! Vir-gin! Vir-gin!” at the indifferent and unaware refs on the flatscreens overhead, Mexico actually gets a fair chance to represent itself and fight for its place in the finals, and for Faces in the Crowd to even win it all. Admittedly, I haven’t read The Pale King, though I want to, and I know I’ll probably like the book—I just don’t want to leave my favorite in the gathering dust and pick up a new team in the final stretch. Everyone’s entitled to their bias, and I’m going with mine. Mexico all the way!
Elianna Kan: Mexico
While I tip my hat to DFW for his literary project and though I understand the tremendous undertaking that was the posthumous publication of Pale King, the novel simply does not stand up to his other work and is merely a more garbled, fragmented, inconsistent exploration of the same deeply depressing themes. For the sheer power of these themes and his exploration of them, Team USA earns a couple goals, but for the lack of a consistently impressive narrative framework and for what feels like a lazier deployment of those themes in this as opposed to his previous works, the win goes to team Mexico for never waking me from the dream, for at least making a consistent and lyrical effort to construct the dream with whatever tools were at Luiselli’s disposal.
Upset! And with that, we have an all-Spanish-language final pitting Chile’s Roberto Bolaño and By Night in Chile against Mexico’s Valeria Luiselli and her Faces in the Crowd.
The winner will be announced at 11am on Monday, July 14th.
And with Germany’s defeat of BiH the semifinals for the World Cup of Literature are all set.
You can download a PDF version here.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown on these two match ups:
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
Originally published in 2000—making it just barely eligible for our competition—By Night in Chile is best described by Richard Eder of the New York Times as “a 130-page rant—part confession, part justification, part delirium—by a dying man, representative of an intellectual class that the author depicts as alternately tugging its leash and licking it.”
Bolaño is one of the authors that literary hipsters love most, although many seem to prefer 2666 or The Savage Detectives. By Night in Chile is more condensed and precise though (and more about Chile the country Bolaño chose to represent in this competition), and that might help him out against Sebald’s longer, more erudite Austerlitz.
Also worth pointing out that Columbia University Press is brining out Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews later this month.
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Austerlitz came out in German in 2001, literally a month before Sebald’s tragic passing. It went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2001 and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2002. And for her translation, Anthea Bell received the 2002 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. That’s a lot of prize winning.
Sebald is renowned for his particular style, which combines fact with fiction, images with text, and often revolves around ideas of memory, history, and decay. Here’s a bit from a review of Austerlitz in the Observer:
Sebald describes a universe which is peculiar but recognisable, the way experience of the world can be shaped by a strongly academic and historical intelligence. I can’t really comprehend his prose style, so distinctive in the length of his sentences and the slight archaism of manner, the monotony of its cadences probably due to the fact that it was originally written in German and then translated. But I would strongly recommend anyone who has not experienced his writing to do so, because it succeeds in communicating issues of great importance concerning time, memory and human experience.
Of the remaining four books, Austerlitz is probably the betting man’s favorite.
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
The only living author still in the competition, Luiselli also comes to the competition with the most recently published book—Faces in the Crowd came out in 2011, and was published in the U.S. by Coffee House Press (along with Luiselli’s essay collection _Sidewalks__ earlier this year.
It’s received some great literary praise, mostly for its unique structure and interweaving of various viewpoints, all of which keep readers on their proverbial toes, having to figure out who’s writing and what is (or isn’t) “true.” From the L.A. Times:
Faces in the Crowd is itself a highly original work of many parts—but one that does, in its own unique way, add up to a satisfying “whole.” At the heart of this engaging and often hauntingly strange novel is a wildly original character: Luiselli’s protagonist lies to her boss, commits literary fraud and assorted acts of adultery, all while raising a baby and a toddler son.
Or maybe she doesn’t do all those things — we can’t be certain, since it’s clear Luiselli’s protagonist isn’t just an unreliable employee and spouse, she’s also an unreliable narrator.
DFW is a formidable opponent, but the fact that Faces is a truly finished book, and that this is a first novel (instead of a posthumous one), might help her through to the finals.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
By now, I suspect everyone knows the story behind The Pale King: In 2008, after DFW committed suicide, editor Michael Pietsch pieced together the unfinished novel and writings that DFW left behind and produced The Pale King. A novel about boredom and the IRS—the only government agency designed to make money, therefore one that should be efficient in modern corporate ways—The Pale King was widely praised, including by World Cup of Literature judge Tom Roberge, in this review for Deadspin. Over at New York, Garth Risk Hallberg also nailed it:
Under the hood, though, what’s remarkable about The Pale King is its congruity with Wallace’s earlier ambitions. Recent generations of Americans have, with a few notable exceptions, been allergic to what used to be called “the novel of ideas.” Information we love, and the more the better. Memes? By all means. But inquiries into ontology and ethics and epistemology we’ve mostly ceded to the science-fiction, self-help, and Malcolm Gladwell sections of the bookstore. A philosophy-grad-school dropout, Wallace meant to reclaim them. _Infinite Jest_ discovered in its unlikely milieu of child prodigies and recovering addicts less a source of status details than a window onto (in Wallace’s words) “what it is to be a fucking human being.” And The Pale King treats its central subject—boredom itself—not as a texture (as in Fernando Pessoa), or a symptom (as in Thomas Mann), or an attitude (as in Bret Easton Ellis), but as the leading edge of truths we’re desperate to avoid. It is the mirror beneath entertainment’s smiley mask, and The Pale King aims to do for it what Moby-Dick did for the whale.
David Foster Wallace was one of the greatest writers of the second half of the twentieth century (or the twentieth century as a whole? or of all time?), but the phrase “unfinished novel” will likely discount this in the minds of some judges, so maybe the mighty American isn’t as unbeatable as he seems at first glance.
That’s it. Stay tuned to find out who’s going through to Monday’s Championship.
The second quarterfinal matchup today features Mexican author Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd up against Uruguay stalwart Mario Benedetti and his The Rest Is Jungle.
Luiselli got to this match by sliding past the Croatian representative Dubravka Ugresic and her Baba Yaga Laid an Egg 3-2 and then running rampant over Australia and Murnane’s Barley Patch by a score of 3-0.
Benedetti’s first-round matchup was against Costa Rica and Óscar Núñez Olivas’s Cadence of the Moon. He won by a score of 2-1. In the second round, The Rest Is Jungle triumphed over Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma by a score of 1-0.
Here we go!
Chad W. Post: Mexico
I said all I have to say about this book in my post on the second round. It’s brilliant in any context, and definitely deserves to move on to the semifinals.
Mauro Javier Cardenas: Mexico
It is exciting when a debut shows so much promise, so much wistfulness written in the kind of Spanish prose I prefer: an admixture of casual and literary, the American English of New York visiting paragraphs every now and again. No fue penal!
Katrine Jensen: Mexico
Everybody should read Faces in the Crowd. Read it for Luiselli’s language. Read it for the masterly translation by MacSweeney.
Nick Long: Mexico
Mexico (Faces in the Crowd) wins by its sheer pace, a literary zoetrope filled with allusions distilled into vignettes that dress up this boring match. The breadth and depth of Faces in the Crowd’s references are legion, and literature is just like soccer, in which things are always fluid and bribing the referee is usually the best plan of action. Mexico may not be able to win in Ohio, but calling upon the powers of d.a. levy was sufficient to bring victory to Faces in the Crowd (albeit not Dos a Cero).
Laura Radosh: Mexico
No match. Does Benedetti write well? Of course he does, he made it this far. Does it hold up to Luiselli’s fragmented wild ride through the (literary) ghosts of two cities? No. Win for Mexico.
Elianna Kan: Mexico
Mexico! A million times Mexico!
Kaija Straumanis: Mexico
I enjoyed Benedetti’s short stories—I really did. But not even 10 pages into Faces in the Crowd) I’m already so hooked, so much more interested in what the following pages will hold and what Luiselli will do with her novel that it already outshines most everything done in The Rest Is Jungle. Also, Luiselli is kind of hot and, well, Uruguayans bite people.
Well, that was rather convincing . . . Mexico annihilates Uruguay and cruised into the semifinals to play either France or America—we’ll find out if it’s Houellebecq or David Foster Wallace tomorrow . . .
Mexico vs. Croatia
A few years back, during a drunken Christmas party at a Danish newspaper, I asked a colleague how she developed her opinions as a movie critic. She did not have an academic background in film, and yet there she was, at a national paper, reviewing movies every week.
“Piece of cake!” she exclaimed, “I just think of the movie as a soccer match, making up the score as I watch it. When I leave the theatre, I ask myself: How was the game?”
I decided to adopt the movie critic’s honorable method in this piece for World Cup of Literature, Mexico vs. Croatia. Furthermore, I have subjected the two competing novels, Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic, to reading in several diverse environments in exciting New York City, including a local coffee shop in Bushwick, a local bar in Bushwick, and my bed (also in Bushwick). I highly doubt that any reader will find this carefully thought-out method to be anything but utterly agreeable.
New York City Subway
It almost seems unfair; Faces in the Crowd actually depicts a NYC subway car on its cover. Its short, poetic prose, served to the reader as connected vignettes, is a match made in heaven for a ride on the L train, infested with hipsters either listening to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” by The Smiths on their iPhones, or talking loudly to their twenty-something friends about failed Tinder dates. You don’t need an attention span to read Faces in the Crowd. You could even consider displacing it on one of those orange plastic seats, to see if the book actually starts reading itself for you.
Baba Yaga, on the other hand, is an outright hassle to get through on the subway. The literary style is dense; it’s difficult to stay focused in the midst of the IT’S SHOWTIME boys breakdancing on the poles, the occasional evangelist, the Alicia Keys wannabe, and whoever else demands my attention in the subway car.
I really shouldn’t be allowed to read good literature. They should give literary licenses to responsible adults only.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 1 – Croatia 0)
Local Bushwick Coffee Shop
Three mornings a week, I buy a breakfast bagel and a coffee from a Colombian sunbeam of a woman. She greets me with the words, “morning sweetie, what can I get for you,” forever in the midst of entertaining the rest of the coffee shop with tales from her home country. The day I bring in my World Cup of Literature titles to read, she speaks fondly of her single-parent upbringing while taking my order.
“My mother used to beat me with a belt. Taught me not to make the same mistake twice, oh no,” she says, and laughs. I laugh too.
“I bet your mother never beat you,” she says to me, and I tell her she is right. Then we laugh again.
This morning I find myself in awe of Baba Yaga. Ugresic’s nightmarishly truthful depiction of a mother-daughter relationship through the first eighty pages of the book puts words to situations that I’ve become only too familiar with, ever since my mother’s illness transformed her into a Baba Yaga when I was twenty. Ugresic is clearly a literary master unworthy of my judgment, and oops, what’s that piece of information I overlooked on the cover? “Nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.”
GOAL TO CROATIA.
(Mexico 1 – Croatia 1)
The sun is burning my Scandinavian scalp, while my blond mane is drenching the forehead and neck in sweat. I buy 3-dollar water from a cart in the park and curse the smirking salesman for just about three minutes in my head, a minute per dollar, I guess. It’s gross out, and I don’t feel like dealing with the heaviness of Baba Yaga’s 327 pages. I find a bench in the shade, try to read a few pages, but must admit defeat. Once again, I pull out Faces in the Crowd. It’s easy to get back into, it’s the guilty pleasure of having sex with your ex—it’s effortless:
Milk, diaper, vomiting and regurgitation, cough, snot, and abundant dribble. The cycles now are short, repetitive, and imperative. It’s impossible to try to write. The baby looks at me from her high chair: sometimes with resentment, sometimes with admiration. Maybe with love, if we are indeed able to love at that age. She produces sounds that will have a hard time adapting themselves to Spanish, when she learns to speak it. Closed vowels, guttural opinions. She speaks a bit like the characters in a Lars von Trier movie.
Admittedly, I have a soft spot for Lars, so Luiselli naturally scores with me right there, on a sweaty bench in Riverside Park. I think of an old boyfriend who took me to see Antichrist in the movie theatre. He was really into soccer.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 2 – Croatia 1)
In Bed In Bushwick
“Is that about Baba Yaga?” my new friend asks, as we lie down to read on my bed, belly first.
“Yeah, kind of,” I say. We look like book seals, although that’s not a thing.
“She’s that witch who eats children, right! Is that book going to win?”
“I don’t know, it’s kind of a masterpiece, but it’s also kind of hard to get through. I think I like this one better,” I say, and tap the cover of Faces in the Crowd.
“Well, I think this one should win!” he says, and pushes Baba Yaga closer to me. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing on Spotify as I begin reading. I was going to put on The Smiths, but decided we were not quite there yet.
I discover that the second section of the book is much sillier than the first; the humor is kind of adorable. I especially enjoy the scene where an elderly woman, Beba, is getting a massage from the young Mevlo:
Beba didn’t know what to say. As far as she could judge, the young man was fine in every way. More than fine.
“This thing of mine stands up like a flagpole, but what’s the use, love, when I’m cold as an icicle? It’s as much use to me as a cripple’s withered leg. You can do what you like with it, tap it as much as you like, it just echoes as though it was hollow.”
“Hang on, what are you talking about?”
“My willy, love, you must have noticed.”
“No,” lied Beba.
I tell my new friend that Baba Yaga is pretty great. I also tell him that he has a huge cock.
We met on Tinder.
GOAL TO CROATIA
(Mexico 2 – Croatia 2)
Local Bushwick Bar
I’m ordering a completely legitimate Tuesday counter-drink, hair of the dog. A counter-Bacardi rum and coke; it has to be exactly the same as the night before, or it won’t help. At this point, there is no point in denying the obvious, I tell the bartender, as Brazil fails to shine against Mexico on the TV behind him.
I don’t feel like reading Baba Yaga right now. I feel like reading Faces in the Crowd. There, I said it.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 3 – Croatia 2)
Katrine Øgaard Jensen is an Editor-at-Large for Asymptote, and the Editor-in-Chief for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University, majoring in Fiction and Literary Translation.
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