19 March 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments



Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Graywolf Press)

Moment Number One

“Technique, my boy,” says a voice in my head. “Shuffle the technique.”

To hell with it: in her youth, Mamá was a beautiful half-breed Indian who had five husbands: a fabled pimp, a police officer riddled with bullet holes, a splendid goodfella, a suicidal musician, and a pathetic Humphrey Bogart impersonator. PERIOD.


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The 2018 translation that’s the occasion for this post is Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney and published by Graywolf Press. But to be honest, this is mostly just going to be banter. Or whatever you call banter that only involves one person and is written instead of spoken.

But we’ll start with a bit about Tomb Song, one of the better works of international literature to come out so far in 2018. It’s referred to as “An Incandescent U.S. Debut” on the press release, which normally would land it on my “do not read” list, but I like the cover. And suspect this is a potential finalist for the National Book Award in Translation (more on that below).

Categorized as “fiction,” it’s a book in which Julián Herbert writes about Julián Herbert writing about the death of his mother from leukemia. (And the death of his father as well.) It resides in that Ben Lerner, or Karl Ove Knausgaard, or maybe Geoff Dyer realm of being a “nonfiction novel,” in which truth and literary technique come together and create something else.

From a recent interview in the Paris Review:

To me, this is a novel. A nonfictional novel, most of the time, though there are some fictional elements. But the protagonist—my mother, Guadalupe—was real. She was a prostitute, and she died of leukemia. Why does it matter if the particular events around her happened in this world or not?

I think novels are novels because of technique, not because the content is made up. I wrote Tomb Song using a novelist’s tools—prolepsis and analepsis, digression, a plot twist that lasts three decades, plenty of characters. It’s always been strange to me that some Spanish-language critics insist that Tomb Song is a memoir and that my other book, The House of the Pain of Others, is a novel. To me, that book is a mix of reportage and narrative history. But honestly, I don’t lose sleep over this. I’ve always written between genres.


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Moment Number Two

We’re always hearing about what a headache the frontier is for the United States because of the drug trafficking. No one mentions how dangerous the United States frontier is for Mexicans because of the trafficking of arms. And, when the subject does come up, the neighboring attorney general points out: “It’s not the same thing: the drugs are of illegal origin, the arms aren’t.” As if there was a majestic logic in considering that in comparison with the destructive power of a marijuana joint, an AK-47 is just a child’s toy.


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Earlier this week, the National Book Awards announced all the specific details about applying for this year’s awards—including all the info on the recently re-established National Book Award for Translation.

Back when it was announced that the National Book Foundation was bringing this back, I wrote a long post about how great it was that Lisa Lucas (and her predecessor at the foundation, Harold Augenbraum, two of the most energetic, concerned people in the book world) made this happen, while also wringing my hands over what this would do to other existent translation awards (the BTBAs in particular, which will be greatly overshadowed), and who exactly would able to afford to apply. (We also did a podcast that touched on this, which has been getting a lot of downloads.)

My primary concern was about all the backend fees for books that are finalists. From that first article:

All publishers submitting books for the National Book Awards must agree to:

Contribute $3,000 toward a promotional campaign if a submitted book becomes a Finalist ($750 for presses with income of under $10 million).

Inform authors of submitted books that, if selected as Finalists, they must be present at the National Book Awards Ceremony and at related events in New York City.

Inform authors that the Finalists Reading will be held at The New School on Tuesday, November 13, 2018.

Inform authors that the National Book Awards Ceremony will be held at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, November 14, 2018.

Cover all travel and accommodation costs for Finalists and provide them with a seat at the Awards Ceremony.

Purchase from the National Book Foundation, when appropriate, medallions to be affixed to the covers of Longlist, Finalist, and Winning books. The Foundation also will license the medallion image artwork for reproduction on the covers of Finalist and Winning books.


For presses that are doing well for themselves—Graywolf, New Directions, Europa—this is likely to be less of a concern. (And for other nonprofits with functioning boards, they could probably raise the money if it was a big issue.) But for a lot of other presses, these extra thousands could be prohibitive, leading to questions of who this award is really for.

BUT! When the actual details came out, almost all of those extra fees were eliminated for translation presses. From the updated National Book Award website:

Contribute toward a promotional campaign if a submitted book becomes a Finalist. For presses with income of $10 million or above, a contribution of $3,000; under $10 million, a contribution of $750; and for presses with income under $1 million, the fee is waived. (So this went from $750 to $0.)

Inform authors that the National Book Awards Ceremony will be held at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, November 14, 2018. If the publisher attends, it is the expectation that they will provide a seat for their Finalist (discounted tickets are available for small, nonprofit, and/or university presses) (Still not sure what the cost actually is, but the fact that we don’t all have to pay Big Five rates is reassuring.)

Cover all travel and accommodation costs for Finalists (the Foundation will provide travel support for Finalists in the Translated Literature category). (Even if the NBF only covers part of this, it’s still a big help.)


So there you go! Even though a Twitter conversation established that Lisa Lucas never read anything I ever wrote on the subject, and was only aware of the BookRiot piece (which is basically a 1:1 rewrite of everything I said), I’d like to think that maybe Three Percent did a bit of good by remarking on all of this and making the economics of translation publishing a bit more transparent.

(Which is bullshit. The only time anyone reads or responds to any of these posts is when they’re offended. A near weekly occurrence, and something that’s really getting me down and making it hard to fully enjoy writing these. This is how self-censorship happens. Although, to be honest, since it seems that no one actually reads these, I should feel way more liberated!)

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Moment Number Three

This last point must refer to me. I prefer to imagine Mamá—drunk and sniveling—singing to the sham lights of La Habana than to see her as I do today: bald, silent, yellow, breathing with greater difficulty than a chick raffled off at a charity event. For over a week now, my mother has been, biochemically speaking, incapable of crying. The ideology of pain is the most fraudulent of all. It would be more honest to say that, since she fell ill with leukemia, my mother’s political thought can be expressed only through a microscope.


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As much as I like this book, there are a few instances where I think the voice wavers. This isn’t to detract from Christina MacSweeney’s work at all—as a whole, this is quite good—but there are a few choices that I’d be curious to know the back story on. This one, “breathing with greater difficulty than a chick raffled off at a charity event” is simply a question of meaning. I’ve never heard that phrase in my life and am unsure if it means a “chicken”? or a derogatory term for a woman? When I Google the phrase, all that comes back are references to Tomb Song. I’m just curious.

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Moment Numbers Four and Five

“If you want to move in with that frigging bitch, fine: do it. But she’ll make your life hell. And you’re abandoning me, the person who’s taken so much shit to get you this far. If you’ve already made up your mind, go ahead. But you’re not my son anymore, you bastard, you’re nothing but a mad dog.”

*


In my family, it’s fine to utter any kind of curse (frigging, bastard, screw, idiot), but obscenities (prick, ass, fart, whore-monger) are prohibited. Although it’s a bit late in the day for me to offer a clear explanation of the difference between the two categories, I can easily intuit which new words belong in one hemisphere and which in the other. The universal term my siblings and I employ to substitute impolite expressions is This.


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The first time “frigging” came up, I was immediately reminded of this bit from an interview MacSweeney gave about Daniel Saldaña París’s Among Strange Victims:

With Among Strange Victims, I started the process in British English and then, when Coffee House Press decided to publish it, I had to rethink certain passages. I remember that the expletive “bloody” (my translation of pinche) was considered too British when it came to editing, and there was a suggestion of replacing it with “damn.” But the problem was, I’d already used “damn” in other contexts, and wanted something more specific for that very Mexican term. Anyway, after a great deal of thought, I decided on “frigging,” which seems to fit neatly between the two cultures: Daniel liked it too.


Really curious to know if that’s the same situation here. I personally have never heard anyone say
“frigging” before, and would never think of it as a substitute for any swear. It does help maintain the confusion between the categories of “curses” and “obscenities” (bastard and screw are allowed but fart isn’t?), but it stands out to me, especially when his mother says it, and against the larger backdrop of characters who say “fucking” and do a lot of cocaine and opioids.

If there really isn’t a satisfactory match for pinche (assuming that’s the original in this book as it was in Among Strange Victims), it would be bold—and cool—to just leave it. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of readers had come across pinche before, or could at least glean it’s swear-status from context. Which brings me to my last translation-related observation/question:

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Moment Number Six

(Scrawneebly is a word Mónica and I invented to refer to cowards: a mixture of scrawny and feeble. We stand facing each other, arms akimbo, in superhero pose, and recite in unison, “And did you really think I was scrawneebly?”)


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I’m all for neologisms—and hate autocorrect for making word inventions difficult to circulate—but this feels a bit too forced to me. The Spanish neologism MacSweeney is working out is “ñañenque,” which, obviously, doesn’t have an easy English solution. In both Spanish and English, the terms components are explained, so it’s possible that this could’ve been another instance where one could leave it in Spanish and use the following line as a chance to make it clear that this is a translation and that there is a distance between languages. “Ñañeque is a word Mónica and I invented to refer to cowards: a mixture of spanish word (scrawny) and other spanish word (feeble).”

Again, not that there’s anything wrong with MacSweeney’s solution. It just stood out to me, and I’m again curious about the thought process and other possibilities.

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Moment Number Seven

We occasionally had breakfast with other Latin American poets, who seemed deeply self-satisfied with their own genius. [. . .] The best poets were, naturally, from Cuba and Chile. But when it came to conversation, nothing doing: they would have had to send them over with built-in subtitles.

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Going back to the NBA for Translation and the great job Lisa Lucas has done with this (which only builds on what she’s done for the foundation as a whole since taking over for Harold Augenbraum) is in her choice of judges for the award. The five judges this year are: Harold Augenbraum (former head of the National Book Foundation, translator from Spanish), Karen Maeda Allman (Elliott Bay Book Company), Sinan Antoon (The Corpse Washer, which he translated into English himself), Susan Bernofsky (translator from German), and Álvaro Enrigue (Sudden Death). That’s a good mix of very qualified and generous people.

Since it’s never too early to speculate, based on my pre-existing knowledge of these judges and the eligible books, here are five that I expect to see on the longlist:

Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani (New Directions) (I’m assuming this is eligible even though Bernofsky translates Tawada’s German works)

Armand V or T Singer by Dag Solstad, translated from the Norwegian by Steven T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally, respectively (New Directions)

My Struggle: Book Six by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Martin Aiken (Archipelago Books)

Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Graywolf Press)

Blue Self-Portrait by Noemi Lefebvre, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis (Transit Books)

One question: Is it OK to lobby for your own books? Given how small the translation world is, I know four of the five of the people on this committee, which makes me uncomfortable. I’m desperate for our books—and our website, and Open Letter as a whole, and myself personally—to get some national respect, to be considered to be “cool” or “necessary,” but prefer that it happens because people read the work itself and respond to quality. As you surely know, I suck at generating favorable vibes for myself or our press and its programs. It’s a curse I struggle with all the time in ways that I don’t want to share, and that you wouldn’t want to experience. But if I were a good publisher, maybe I could do that extra bit of Oscar-esque soft-diplomacy that creates a warm context within which these judges would more likely appreciate our submissions . . .

There are four books of ours that I think deserve to be longlisted: Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán, Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira, and The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen. If one of those makes the longlist, I’ll be ecstatic.

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Moment Number Eight

As a child, I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. A man in a white coat. But all too soon I discovered my lack of aptitude: it took me years to accept the roundness of the earth. In public, I faked it.

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The other day, I came across this headline from the Chicago Review of Books: “You’ve Never Read a Novel Like Empty Set.” That’s some solid Internet hyperbole! I made a joke on Twitter about how this sounds like a BuzzFeed headline, but that didn’t go over well (as per usual), in part because most people favor exaggerated positivity over learned accuracy—especially in headlines. (Even the title of the L.A. Times review of this book brushes up against that: “Mexican novelist Julián Herbert’s ‘Tomb Song’ marks him as one of the most innovative prose stylists of our time.”)

(BTW, the review that went along with the Chicago Review of Books headline is totally reasonable, and Empty Set is totally reasonable as a book as well. It’s not Joyce or anything—which that headline implies—but it’s good.)

So what I decided is that I should go back and change all of my previous posts to reflect this sort of “clickbait” mentality. Hell, I wrote an article once about how no one reads articles, they just glance at the headline, who’s tweeting it, and then click “heart” and/or “reshare.” It’s a complete inefficiency to write long, voice-driven posts that shoot for nuance and call-backs and embedded jokes, but I’d get way way more readers if these posts have BuzzFeed-inspired titles like: “9 Moments That Make ‘Tomb Song’ the Frontrunner for the National Book Award in Translation,” or “How ‘Empty Set’ Revolutionized the Marketing of Translations,” or “10 Paths to Obscure Books That Will Make You Say ‘Wow’,” or “Readers Born in the 1970s Will Recognize These Vargas Llosa Classics,” or “15 Ways Books About Chess Can Rewire Your Brain—And Make You Smarter!”

That’s the new Three Percent policy: sell-out when you can. Rochester is lonely enough, there’s no honor in spending four hours a weekend writing shit that no one ever clicks on.

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Moment Number Nine

All of a sudden Émil Cioran’s little books on antipersonal development for adolescents come to mind. The one, for example, in which insomnia reveals to him the most profound sense of the trouble with existence: it impelled him toward unlimited spite: walking to the shoreline and throwing stones at some poor seagulls. Jeez, what a punk.


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This is something I’ll get into more next week, but I wanted to mention it here since it’s on my mind.

A lot of Book Twitter was talking about this profile in the Guardian of Will Self, in particular, this bit:

You’re not awfully optimistic about the future of the novel, are you?

I think the novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony. And that’s already happened. I’ve been publishing since 1990, so I’ve seen it happen in my writing lifetime. It’s impossible to think of a novel that’s been a water-cooler moment in England, or in Britain, since Trainspotting, probably.

It’s frequently said that that’s partly because narrative has migrated to box sets. Is there any truth in that?

The relationship between the novel and film in the 20th century was like the relationship between Rome and Greece. Film depended upon the novel, at least in its infancy and youth. The problem is that now that film itself is being Balkanised – carved up, streamed, loaded on to DVDs, watched on people’s phones – it no longer needs its grease, it no longer needs the novel lying behind it. It’s a disaster for the novel, actually – I think the novel is in freefall.


All of the reactions I saw were of the “It’s hypocritical to say the contemporary novel is doomed and not read any contemporary novels!” line. I might be completely off-base, but I thought Self was getting at something different. There are questions about narrative approaches within contemporary novels—and whether good TV is more narratively innovative than, say, a Franzen novel—but I think there’s also the question of the relevance of the novel within culture. It’s really hard to think of a novel that generated the same amount of discussion about non-book industry people as several Netflix shows. And that doesn’t seem to be going away. The centrality of the novel to culture has definitely evolved since 1990—and not in a particularly positive way.

More on that next week . . . Along with some thoughts about Lispector’s The Chandelier.

9 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments



Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)

Although five books is most definitely a small sample size of throwaway proportions, out of the books that I’ve written about for this weekly “column,” Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci and translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney is my favorite. I don’t know where it will stack up by the end of the year—there are a number of titles coming out this summer that I’m looking forward to, and as a gesture toward impartiality, I’ll should really leave Fox, The Bottom of the Sky, The Endless Summer, and other Open Letter titles out of these evaluations—but for now I’d put it ahead of The Perfect Nanny, In Black and White, Frankenstein in Baghdad, and Theory of Shadows. (And that is how I would rank them, one to five.)

As you can probably predict, I’m not going to write a full, well thought out review for this book. If that’s what you want, I’d highly recommend checking out Lisa Fetchko’s review over at the _Los Angeles Review of Books. She breaks the book down really well, and even gets into a particular translation issue about the use of _ in place of _Yo(Y), which is also discussed in an afterword that will be of particular interest to translators or those interested in the translation—or editing of translations—process.

I’m going to use this book as an opportunity to write about something entirely different, but before I do that, I have two or three quick points.

1) I like the use of the charts in this book. I’ll come back to this in a few different ways down below, but drawings such as this one—which is preceded by, “Here’s where this story ends,” a statement that means more once you have reached the end—is what makes this book unique.



And obviously, all the Venn Diagram charts are why I initially chose to read this book. Who doesn’t like a Venn Diagram?! This is one statement about math and statistics that everyone can agree on.

2) In a way, this is The Perfect Nanny for an entirely different set of readers. Written to be a blockbuster, The Perfect Nanny includes a lot of techniques and tropes and literary moments designed to make a certain set of readers feel comfortably stimulated. The set of readers (R-1) who prefer linear plots, heavy character development, detailed settings, psychological tension.

Empty Set generates an equal amount of reading comfort in a different set of readers (R-2) who feel more at ease in a text of evocative fragments, acrostics, plots like puzzles, and characters whom you don’t feel obligated to relate to.

For both R-1 and R-2 these books are equally successful in their approaches. And R-1 probably doesn’t care for Empty Set (“too confusing!” “I couldn’t relate to anyone!”), and vice-versa (“I’d rather see the movie”).

You could, I don’t know, draw a Venn Diagram of these two subsets of readers . . .

3) Not to take anything away from this novel, but wow have January and February been slow months for international literature. There doesn’t seem to have been anything buzzing on Book Twitter or Book Marks or in the blogosphere (doesn’t anyone say that anymore?) or at Winter Institute. I’ve written about the drop in translations both of the past two months, but that was just focused on pure numbers, not quality or sales or impact or anything else. But looking back at what I have read, and forward to what’s on my docket, it feels like pretty quiet year so far.

Although I’m personally hoping this New York Times review of Madame Nielsen’s The Endless Summer changes that, this still feels a lot like the current situation in Major League Baseball—the slowest in all of history—in which no free agents are being signed and nothing at all is happening. There are so many interesting explanations for this situation in which several of the game’s best players are currently unemployed: it could be collusion, it could be that clubs have more advanced understanding of the value available in the free agent market, it could be due to the fact that 1/3 of the teams are tanking in 2018 and another 1/2 aren’t really in a position to do anything but tread water, it could be because of the new collective bargaining agreement and traditional big spenders (LA Dodgers, NY Yankees) trying to reset their competitive balance assessments by getting under the spending threshold for one year, or it could have something to do with yachts. God bless Scott Boras!1

Anyway, this combination of thinking about baseball (how to best build a team, player valuations, etc.) + reading a novel centered around set theory2 + a stray comment I made in an earlier post —> an idea to try and create some core concepts for a sabermetric approach to the book industry.

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     Sales(S)

This is an obvious building block. People usually value books based on how many copies they sold. “We sold 10,000 copies!” Or, “It was a best-seller in Mexico!”

(Not to be confused with “Print Run(PR),” which is a number based in hope that signifies nothing more than the publisher’s wish to sneakily manipulate the bookseller market. Print Run(PR) is equivalent to Scott Boras’s bullshit stats packages for players like Eric Hosmer who are hoping to receive contracts that are far larger than the value they’ll generate for their team. Print Runs(PR) are generally lies.)

Are sales really all that useful of a statistic though?

First off, the latter statement up there—repeated way too frequently in meetings with foreign agents—is crap. It’s descriptive, not objective, and lacks any and all context. How many books did this title beat out to become a best-seller? For how long was it a best-seller? How predictive is the Mexican best-seller list for a book entering other markets? Are the coefficients mapping it onto the French and U.S. markets radically different?

Another criticism: Sales in a vacuum takes into account none of the expenses involved with generating those sales. A book with a million dollar marketing budget that sells 100,000 copies is vastly different from a book that sells 100,000 based on a viral video that cost $.49 to make.

It also doesn’t take into account the list price of the book itself. It’s obviously way easier to sell 10,000 ebooks at $.99 than 10,000 hardcovers of a scholarly investigation into the sexual life of mollusks that lists for $149.

Sales is like batting average. A nice metric the average citizen can understand, but really not all that valuable.

Actually, that’s kind of a lie. Batting Average has values that most people can recognize as “good,” (.280) “amazing,” (.320) and “hall of fame.” (.340+). What are the equivalents for books? If I tell the people sitting next to me at the bar that we sold 3,000 copies of a book, will they think that’s great? Or pathetic? Without a commonly accepted baseline—among the larger audience, not just book nerds—this doesn’t mean a whole lot.

And it doesn’t take into account the idea that a book is more than its purchases. Thought experiment: Which is better? A book that sells 10,000 copies, 2,000 of which are read, with 10 readers capable of recalling the book one year later, or a book that sells 1,500 copies, 1,000 of which are read, with 200 readers taking this to the grave? (A: If you’re Big Five it’s the former, if you’re nonprofit the latter. There is no unified theory of sales.)

     (Sales(S) x List Price(P)) x Readership® – Fixed Operating Expenses(FOE) – Printing(PR) – Author Payment(AP) – Translator Payment(TP) – Marketing Costs(MC) = True Profit(RP)

OK, so this is two steps in one: I’ve added in all the variables mentioned above (costs, list price), but then thrown in the idea of “Readership®” to try and point at the fact that overall impact of a single printed book isn’t a one-to-one ratio with copies sold. On the most basic level, there are used copies. How many students a year buy used copies of The Great Gatsby for class? Or check it out from a library? A book’s true value, or “Profit” (capitalist term, I know), is always and forever greater than the number of printed copies.

We’re still missing a few things though: What about people who know about a book, yet don’t buy it? And what about the longevity of readership? It’s one thing to read Gone Girl and then keep on living, another to read Ulysses and have your life perspective changed. That Cultural Value(CV) isn’t captured here, and I’m not sure it ever can be quantified in this way. So let’s change tactics a bit.

     ((Expected Sales(ES) x List Price (P)) – ((Publishing Interest(PI) + Agent Status(AS)) – Total Expenses(TE))) ) = Cash Profit(CP) + Cultural Capital(CC)

If we really want to create a sabermetric approach to books, we have to look for exploitable inefficiencies in the marketplace. And my first inclination is that these inefficiencies come in two flavors: leveraging reputations against author advances and finding a way to decrease artist payments.

That’s not quite right though. Let me back up a bit and math this out.

In the early 2000s, there were no translations3 and there was a major gap between the best /most expensive translators (Margaret Jull Costa, Edith Grossman, Richard Howard, Gregory Rabassa) and everyone else. Without a middle class—and without competition—certain publishers saw an exploitable inefficiency. How much can you make when you pay $1,000 as an author advance, $1,000 to a grad student translator (“Hey, yo, we’re gonna like, launch your career!”), and can get $3,000+ from foreign agencies desperate for American publishers to acknowledge that their literature even existed? In that situation, you can flip 2,500 sales into a decent amount of money. That is the dirty truth of translation publishing in the early part of this century.

Then things changed! International lit got more popular. Translators got organized. Now, the idea of going overseas to find the best books that no one knows or cares about is complicated by the two dozen new presses trying to beat you there, and the combination of ethical obligations in relation to translator payments and agent involvement in raising author advances (good in the short term, maybe, and probably not in the long term, but that’s its own metric), raised Total Expenses(TE) in an astronomical fashion. As well as altering the Agent Status(AS) (“I have the next Ferrante on my list . . . “) and the Publishing Interest(PI) (“We’re starting a new press and want in on the hot trends, so which book is the one that’s going to get us critical attention AND be most readable by the (R1) readers of The Perfect Nanny?”). Increase the second half of the equation above while not changing the overall sales, and you’re going to kill your margins.

That doesn’t mean that publishers will stop pursuing books that are unlikely to earn back expenses. Look at Penguin paying a million dollars for a Knausgaard novel. There’s basically no way that he’ll earn that back in straight sales. Same with Knopf and Javier Marías. PRH can definitely expand the audiences for these authors, but there’s a ceiling. Even knowing that, they’re willing to go ahead because there’s a value just to having these names on your list. Reputation, cultural capital, whatever you want to call it, it’s part of this equation as well.

     Expected Sales(ES) = Author Fans(AF) x Purchasing Coefficient(PC)

If someone were able to come up with an algorithm that was even 90% accurate in predicting sales, they would be in a position to basically print money. Long time readers—or anyone involved in the book word—know that publishers don’t really do any market research. Unlike movies, there is no pre-release tracking figures for blockbuster titles. Sure, you can “have a pretty good sense” about how well a book is or isn’t going to sell, but outside of Harry Potter, James Patterson, and a handful of other brands, the error bars on predicted sales are really wide.

Past performance by the author and publisher are major indicators of how a particular title will sell, so maybe this is something that could be calculated . . . Throw in a few sensible metrics about the author—Twitter Followers(TF), Reviewing Connections(RC), etc.—along with some sort of figures about the publisher—Sales Reps(REP), Average Reach(REA), Influencer Access(IA), etc.—and maybe you can come up with some sort of prediction.

     (Pace of Reading(PAC) x Length(LEN)) x (Character Connections(CC) x Plot Points(PP)) x Buzz(BUZZ) = Reading Desirability(DES)

Amazon’s metrics about how fast people read various books, where they tend to stop, which titles are most/least likely to be read in their entirety, etc., totally freak literary people out. There are a ton of Silicon Valley people who would love to create a program that would use some complex algorithm to churn out best-selling book after best-selling book without any author’s involvement whatsoever. They would flood the market with exactly what most people want, all more or less for free, and utilizing some sort of textual analysis that combines all the typical plot elements of popular books (hero’s quest, typical plot structure of rising action, climax, denouement) with other quantifiable elements (language level, sentence and chapter length, number of chapters) that have been found to keep readers engaged and flipping pages.

Take all that, mix in some BUZZ (readers want to feel like they have to read a book so as to not be left out) and you can figure out how likely a book is to appeal to a wide audience.

     Turnover(TO) x Cash Profit(CP) x Hipster Quotient(HQ) = Indie Stock(IND)

Bookstores actually have the ability to come up with a ton of different measurements, depending on what they want to track or evaluate. Sales per linear foot in given sections. How fast different subjects turn over. Average amount spent by a customer. Frequency of returning customers. There’s tons of data sitting right there that could be analyzed in a totally straightforward fashion.

But indie stores aren’t necessarily about efficiency in the way Barnes & Noble or Amazon would like to be. Part of their reason for being is tied to having the books that you don’t always find at the big box stores, at pushing a sort of aesthetic agenda that sets them apart. If, as a store owner, you could always know which books will both increase your coolness factor with your clientele and sell with the necessary velocity to keep you paying your rent, you’d be in the best spot possible. This might seem intuitive, but I think it can be a bit more complicated depending on how you value your reputation. For example, you may not want to carry Fifty Shades of Gray because you have standards, but that means you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. And carrying too many different titles that sell one time a year, yet make you seem like the smartest bookstore around, is a recipe for closure. Figuring out that balance—and which books maximize Cash Profit(CP) and Reputation(REP)—would be ideal.

*


There are tons and tons of different types of equations one could come up with in hopes of finding exploitable inefficiencies. And that could be kind of fun! But so is ignoring data completely and publishing/reading/stocking a book just because it feels right.

Besides, a lot of this calculus is already done on a daily basis by most everyone. Even though it’s not quantified in a sortable, sharable way, people are constantly making these sorts of decisions. They may not think about them quite as honestly as they should though, and maybe something like a set of publishing sabermetric ideas could help publishers and stores be all that they could be. It’s fun to come up with various calculations, mostly because it makes you think about what you’re actually trying to measure, and why the measurements you might already have fall short. It can help define your mission, and by working in various intangible benefits, you can better justify various investments or decisions.


- – - – - – - – - – - – -


1 For anyone not willing to click through (and good on you!), here’s the amazing quote from super-agent Scott Boras:

The off-season is like the America’s Cup. We have 30 boats in the water. They take off and eventually they get to the free-agent docks. Normally, there are trade winds, and there are economic investments in the capacity of the boat, which allow those boats to get to the appropriate free-agent docks.

This year, there was a detour to Japan, where there was a $250 million asset available for $3 million (Ohtani). All boats went to Japan. Then they sailed back a good distance. They came to Florida and found a sinking ship and all of its cargo was in the water (Dee Gordon, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich). All teams tried to load it on their boats.

That took additional time. Then, as they moved forward to the free-agent docks, they found other ships dumping cargo—Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay and a few others—which then slowed their arrivals to the free-agent docks. So, trade winds, Japan, shipwreck in Florida, more cargo-spewing, all those things artificially delayed the arrivals to the free-agent docks.


Sorry, I have no idea—but I love it! More literary agents need to go off the rails when making random comments about the books they’re trying to auction. That would liven up book journalism!

2 Representative bit from Bicecci and MacSweeney’s Empty Set:

There isn’t much documented evidence of this, but during the military dictatorship in Argentina, teaching basic set theory was prohibited in schools. We know, for example, that a tomato belongs to the tomato(TO) set and not to onion(ON) or chilies(CH) or coriander(CO). Where’s the threat in reasoning like that? In set theory, tomatoes, onions, and chilies might realize they are different foodstuffs, but also that they have things in common, like the fact that they can all belong to the fresh hot salsa(FHS) set and, at the same time, to the Universe(U) of cultivated plants(CP), and might perhaps unite against some other set or Universe(U); for example, that of canned hot salsa(CAHS). In short, a community of vegetables. Venn diagrams are tools of the logic of sets. And from the perspective of sets, dictatorship makes no sense, because its aim is, for the most part, dispersal: separation, scattering, disunity, disappearance.


3 My sabermetric principles apply to BOOKS in general, not just translations, but I want to focus on exploiting this market since it might explain what’s going on in 2018 with the weird decrease in translation publications.

Although! Let me promise the four of you reading this that next month I’ll run some three- and five-year rolling average stats to avoid comparing 2018 to the Best Year Ever. I’ve been statistically irresponsible and I know it. Sorry.

5 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by George Henson, a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, contributing editor for World Literature Today and Latin American Literature Today, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.



Among Strange Victims by Daniel Saldaña París, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 72%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 16%

Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum, as does publishing. The death of Roberto Bolaño, Latin America’s enfant terrible left such a vacuum.

Every agent, publisher, reviewer, bookseller, and even reader, has been searching far and wide, high and low, in every nook and cranny of Latin America for the next Bolaño, a new literary wunderkind that will fill the void created by Bolaño’s untimely death. In fact, the search for the next Bolaño has been a boon, providing American publishers, literary translators, booksellers, and readers a new crop of fresh, talented Latin American writers: Valeria Luiselli, Yuri Herrera, Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, and Daniel Saldaña París, to name but a few.

Among the names that emerged as possible heirs to the Bolaño phenomenon is that of Andrés Neuman, whom Bolaño himself seemed to have anointed when he wrote that “the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.” Then came the Hay Festival’s Bogotá 39 and Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, a list—in book format—whittled down from 39 to 22.

It is worth noting that none of the names that appear on these lists appears on this year’s BTBA long list. To be fair, some were nominated, while others made the long list in years past. But, still, their absence from this year’s long list is telling. To borrow a Spanish idiom, “Brillan por su ausencia” [They shine by their absence]; in English, “They’re conspicuous by their absence.”

If such a list existed today, there is little doubt that the author of En medio de extrañas víctimas would make the cut. Just as there is no doubt that Coffee House Press, publisher of Among Strange Victims, the English translation, has attempted to anoint Saldaña as Bolaño’s heir apparent. Witness the novel’s logline: “Slackers meets Savage Detectives in this polyphonic ode to the pleasures of not measuring up.”

The novel’s title is taken from the epigraph—“On park benches, among strange victims, the poet and amputees come sit together,”—written by Arthur Cravan, the Swiss poet, pugilist and avant-gardist whose bohemian life—and a series of forged passports—took him from Switzerland to France to Spain to the United States and eventually to Mexico, where he died under strange circumstances in Mexico.

The novel revolves around Rodrigo, a young functionary, a “knowledge administrator,” a title he has invented for himself, who works in a museum, a slacker to borrow from Coffee House’s tagline, who’s content to go through life without making any decisions. Or what there is of his life.

My life is a repetition of one Saturday after another. What’s in between deserves another name. Sundays don’t count: they consist—I’m exaggerating here—of twenty-four wasted hours of which I will remember nothing the following day, and that following day, Monday, marks the beginning of the reign of inertia, whose only function is to carry me along smoothly, as if floating on a cloud of certainties, to the next Saturday. What’s more, on Saturday’s I masturbate twice.

To move the plot, Saldaña employs a common novelistic trope, mistaken identity, in which Cecilia, the museum director’s secretary, slips our young slacker a note saying, “I accept.” Thereafter, we learn that someone posing as our young protagonist proposed to Cecilia. To build a twenty-first-century novel around such a clichéd trope could have easily derailed, careening into pratfalls and platitudes. Saldaña, however, is too good a writer. That is not to say that there is not a thread of humor in this novel. Writing in Factor crítico, Goio Borge describes the humor this way:

[Saldaña’s] tools are a brilliant syntax, the ability to achieve recurring images of great force, a set of relationships among plot elements that go beyond a merely forced structured, and humor, a corrosive humor that never gives way to belly laughs, but continues to show itself in every phrase in the book, charged with a sardonic irony that offers readers no respite[.]

In 2015, I had the pleasure of translating an essay written by Daniel for Literary Hub, titled “Sergio Pitol: Mexico’s Total Writer,” to coincide with the publication of my translation of Pitol’s The Art of Flight. I say pleasure because Saldaña’s admiration for Pitol is equal to my own and because his prose was truly a joy to translate. Clean. Measured. Unsuperfluous. But also, because there is something uncannily Pitolean about this novel. And that is a very good thing.

Saldaña’s translator, Christina MacSweeney, is no stranger to BTBA readers. Her translations of Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth were finalists in 2015 and 2016, respectively. In an interview with Words Without Borders, MacSweeney was asked about being a British translator (MacSweeney received an MA in translation from the University of East Anglia) who translates Latin American Spanish into American English. Her answer:

With Among Strange Victims, I started the process in British English and then, when Coffee House Press decided to publish it, I had to rethink certain passages. I remember that the expletive “bloody” (my translation of pinche) was considered too British when it came to editing, and there was a suggestion of replacing it with “damn.” But the problem was, I’d already used “damn” in other contexts, and wanted something more specific for that very Mexican term. Anyway, after a great deal of thought, I decided on “frigging,” which seems to fit neatly between the two cultures: Daniel liked it too.

At first read, MacSweeney’s rendering for pinche seems off. Admittedly, the thought that pinche might have been rendered as “bloody” was even more jarring. As a frequent translator of Mexican writers, I’m often called on to translate pinche. After further consideration, I decided I liked MacSweeney’s choice. There’s something refreshing about it. As all translators know, expletives and swear words present all kinds of challenges, having to do with many factors, dialect, geography, generation, context, tone, register, etc., not to mention pinche is multivalent. It can be used to express something that is negligible, defective, of poor quality, having little or no value, austere, and even unusually big. It can be used to express contempt, scorn, mockery, and even pity.

In the end, I like translators who teach me something about translation, who give me new solutions to old problems. MacSweeney is one of those translators. Her translation of Among Strange Victims is clean, measured, unsuperfluous, just as is Saldaña’s prose. Consider the following fragment:

The small office he had been designed was, indeed, full of pigeons. The birds lived in four cages piled one on top of the other, blocking the only external window. Velásquez explained that the office had belonged to an agronomist who, one fine day, had declared himself to be ill and never returned. His student had received the news with complete indifference, and no one had made any effort to discover his whereabouts. After a few months he had been dismissed, and the caretaker confessed that the agronomist had left him in charge of a number of pigeons.

MacSweeney’s translation achieves everything a translation should. And there’s something remarkable in that. Prize-worthy, in fact.

13 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Amanda Bullock, BTBA judge and director of public programs at Literary Arts, Portland. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, translated by Christina MacSweeney, is the most inventive and invigorating book I have read this year and it the most deserving of the Best Translated Book Award. The Story of My Teeth is about stories and storytelling, about art and how we value objects, about influence, and about teeth. It manages to be intelligent and experimental without an ounce of pretension (something I could not say for some of the other books on the longlist). In her afterword, Luiselli describes the book as a “collective ‘novel-essay’ about the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature.”

Our narrator is the self-proclaimed “best auctioneer in the world,” Gustav Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway.” Highway is “a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.” One of the most delightful sections is “The Hyperbolics,” in which Highway auctions off his own teeth, which he had removed in order to make room for Marilyn Monroe’s (well, allegedly Marilyn Monroe’s), spinning yarns about his teeth’s origins in the jaws of Plutarch, Virginia Woolf, G. K. Chesterton, and more of his philosophical heroes. He is demonstrating, he explains, that objects themselves have no value, but that we give them value and meaning through stories.

The book is about storytelling, yes, and another way to describe “storytelling” could be “making things up,” or “lying.” Highway is an unreliable narrator, sure, and in fact we meet a second narrator, Jacobo Voraigne, a little more than midway through the story, but Highway’s unshakeable confidence in himself and his style are irresistible. As we learn later from Voraigne, Highway is a self-made and self-mythologized man, a man who has written his own story.

The book is just the right amount of odd, making it playful where a lesser writer would be in danger of falling into pretentiousness or tweeness. Highway learns auctioneering from a Japanese man, “Master Oklahoma,” in Mexico City and furthers his studies in Missouri. He builds a huge house and a warehouse for all of his objects bought at auction on Calle Disneylandia. He buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth and has them put into his own mouth. There is a truly disturbing scene that will haunt me forever involving clowns. Luiselli provides lanterns to the larger project at play. There is a lot of name-checking: Highway mentioned uncles including Juan Sánchez Baudrillard, Miguel Sánchez Foucault, Marcelo Sánchez Proust, Roberto Sánchez Walser, and Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky. Most of the seemingly strangest parts of the book are the parts that are real places (the Missouri Auction School, Calle Disneylandia, an art gallery attached to and funded by a juice factory) or people (El Perro) or events (the clowns are a real art installation, at the Jumex Gallery). Luiselli’s is an intelligent humor, but is actually smart and actually funny.

Although I would argue that the novel alone, outside of the origin story, is worthy of the prize, in fact, the collaboration throughout this book is, if anything, the clincher. The award is not the “Best Novel Originally Written in a Foreign Language,” or even “Best Novel.” It is specifically “Best Translated Book Award,” and both the author and the translator are recognized. I think that the final of the book’s seven sections, “The Chronologic,” (and the Afterword, in fact) is one of the strongest arguments for why it should win this award and not, as some would posit, a strike against the novel. The Chronologic was written by the translator, Christina MacSweeney, and is a narrative timeline of Highway’s (fictional) life alongside events directly relating to the people and places in the novel: the death of Foucault, the beginning of work on Mexico’s first Volkswagen plant, the birth of Doug Aitken. It’s an amazing footnote to this strange story and highlights the close work between Luiselli and MacSweeney. In the Afterword, Luiselli says that she prefers to think of the translations of her books as “versions,” as she is so involved in their journey into English and often much changes in the the process. This book in particular, written as a commission by the Jumex gallery and then in direct collaboration with the workers at the factory that funds the gallery, is so highly and intentionally participatory and open that it strikes at the very heart of translation.

The Story of My Teeth is a book about truth and fiction, a question I think is central to reading translated work. How does the reader know this is “true”? Can a translation ever be “true”? How do we know what was meant by the author? Who is telling the story? The novel is in many ways directly tied to the dilemma of translation itself, making it the perfect winner of the Best Translated Book Award.

End of argument.

15 January 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from judge Kevin Elliott, bookseller at 57th Street Books in Chicago. As a reminder, you can stay up to date with all BTBA goings on by liking our Facebook page and by following us on Twitter. And by checking in regularly here at Three Percent.

The Story Of My Teeth is an experimental novel, but not one that any coffee-house denizen twisting his mustache and wearing a beret will be able to keep and lord over you as a privileged work of literature written for the few. If anything, Valeria Luiselli brings literary know-how and attachment to the masses with the simultaneously entertaining and insightful story of Gustavo Highway Sanchez Sanchez.

Sanchez is a one man traveling circus and auctioneer who makes an art of selling his teeth in black-market auctions. The teeth in question each belong to a different historical figure, and behind each dental attachment, is a story that Gustavo spins in order to sweeten the cavity in what is otherwise a useless commodity. The stories he tells in order to make a sale seem far fetched and somewhat unbelievable, but there is always a customer. Perhaps it is Gustavo’s past as a simple security guard at a Juice Factory that keeps the auction-goers from questioning his sincerity. Even in his final auction lot, where he sells the very teeth he had implanted into his mouth—none other than the original teeth of Marilyn Monroe—the reader’s suspension of disbelief is held. Even beyond the realization that it is Gustavo’s own son who buys his teeth . . . with Gustavo attached.

While the structure of Luiselli’s second novel (her third book to be translated into English) is fragmented and as digressive as Gustavo’s auctioneering, what lies at the core is the power of stories and the interpretation of such to make individual meaning for the people consuming them. After a tragedy in Gustavo’s life that once again centers on his teeth and the theme-park wonderland where he lives in seclusion, we are brought into his biography through the re-interpretation of an auction catalog where a contemporary cast of literary characters, including Latin American novelists such as Yuri Herrera, Cesar Aira, and even Luiselli herself show up in simultaneously hilarious and insightful ways.

If the dizzying array of style and structure isn’t enough for readers, there is the integrated translation of sorts that took place during Luiselli’s first drafts of the novel. The Jumex Juice factory isn’t just a location that the central character of the novel once worked, but a real factory outside of Mexico City where a group of workers met regularly to discuss and help form the fragments of the novel. Furthermore, Christina MacSweeney, who translated the text into English is more present in the story as the author of the book’s Seventh section, “The Chronologic,” which is a timeline of the events surrounding and contained in Teeth’s story, which not only serves as a brief history of Latin American literature, but aids in creating an entirely new book when compared to the original Spanish publication of the novel.

In the end, The Story Of My Teeth is more than just a novel . . . as all novels that impact our lives are. It is a testament to not only the work that goes into translation, but also to the value of storytelling in a world that sometimes seems to commodify authenticity through our all-access lifestyle. A lifestyle that can seem bland once the curtain of mystery is pulled away only to reveal another character waiting behind it.

26 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So, this year, for the first time ever, BookExpo America is sponsoring two panels highlighting forthcoming works of fiction: one featuring general fiction, the other focusing on crime and thrillers. (Naturally, I’m moderating the first one and Tom Roberge is doing the other.)

The one on general adult fiction will take place first on Thursday, May 28th, at 10:30am on the Eastside Stage. The Crime one will be on Friday, May 29th, at 10:30am on the Eastside Stage.

Any of you who happen to be attending BEA should definitely come check this out. As a pilot program, it’s very important that we have a decent number of people show up for the events, so that we can hopefully grow this more and more in the future.

To whet your interest, here’s a bit of a preview of the General Fiction panel (I’ll do crime separately), complete with booth numbers so that you can go snag galleys of the books that look most interesting to you:

BEA Selects Adult Fiction in Translation
Thursday, May 27th, 10:30am
Eastside Stage

Coach House Books (Booth 648) will present Guano by Louis Carmain, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins.

Since this won’t be available for a while, I can’t find any information about this on Coach House’s site, but I was able to scrape this off of Google Translate:

This is a story of war and love. Now, as these two are often born of entertainment no – tense border, made smiles – to surprise us in the end to be all – dead, tears, surprises – there was virtually no grand departure thing.

Which . . . is intriguing . . . (Seriously though, Coach House does great work and I’m really glad they’ll be featured on this panel.)

Coffee House Press (Booth 642) will present Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney:

Highway is a late-in-life world traveller, yarn spinner, collector, and legendary auctioneer. His most precious possessions are the teeth of the ‘notorious infamous’ like Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf. Written in collaboration with the workers at a Jumex juice factory, Teeth is an elegant, witty, exhilarating romp through the industrial suburbs of Mexico City and Luiselli’s own literary influences.

(I actually just finished reading this and it’s wonderful.)

Graywolf Press (Booth 3064) will present A Woman Loved by Andreï Makine, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan:

Catherine the Great’s life seems to have been made for the cinema—her rise to power, her reportedly countless love affairs and wild sexual escapades, the episodes of betrayal, revenge, and even murder—there’s no shortage of historical drama. But Oleg Erdmann, a young Russian filmmaker, seeks to discover and portray Catherine’s essential, emotional truth, her real life, beyond the rumors and facades. His first screenplay just barely makes it past the Soviet film board, and is assigned to a talented director, but the resulting film fails to avoid the usual clichés. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as he struggles to find a place for himself in the new order, Oleg agrees to work with an old friend on a TV series that becomes a quick success—as well as increasingly lurid, a far cry from his original vision. He continues to seek the real Catherine elsewhere . . .

Makine is extremely well-known throughout the world (you may be familiar with Dreams of My Russian Summers, which enjoyed a great deal of success) and it’s great that he’s found a home at Graywolf for his new books.

Come out on Thursday morning to see Erin Kottke, Alana Wilcox, and Caroline Casey talk about all of these!

24 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Tom Roberge is the Deputy Director of Albertine Books and Bookstore Liaison for New Directions.



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.

22 January 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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.”

10 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

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.

14 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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).

Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile made it to the finals by beating the Netherlands, Brazil, Italy, and Germany.

Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd made it here by beating Croatia, Australia, Uruguay, and the USA.

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.


Chile 0 – Mexico 1


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.


Chile 0 – Mexico 2


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.


Chile 0 – Mexico 3


Hal Hlavinka: Chile


Chile 1 – Mexico 3


Mauro Javier Cardenas: Chile


Chile 2 – Mexico 3


Tom Roberge: Chile


Chile 3 – Mexico 3


Scott Esposito: Chile


Chile 4 – Mexico 3


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.


Chile 5 – Mexico 3


Rhea Lyons: Chile


Chile 6 – Mexico 3


Jeff Waxman: Chile


Chile 7 – Mexico 3


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.”


Chile 7 – Mexico 4


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.


Chile 8 – Mexico 4


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.


Chile 9 – Mexico 4


Chris Schaefer: Chile


Chile 10 – Mexico 4


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.


Chile 10 – Mexico 5


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.


Chile 10 – Mexico 6


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.


Chile 11 – Mexico 6


Trevor Berrett: Chile


Chile 12 – Mexico 6


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 . . .


Chile 13 – Mexico 6


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!!!!!!


Chile 13 – Mexico 7


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.)


Chile 13 – Mexico 8


Lance Edmonds: Chile


Chile 14 – Mexico 8


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!


Chile 15 – Mexico 8


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.


Chile 16 – Mexico 8


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.


Chile 16 – Mexico 9


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.


Chile 17 – Mexico 9


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!

——

Did By Night in Chile Deserve to Win the Championship?

Yes
No


10 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.


Mexico 1 – USA 0


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.


Mexico 2 – USA 0


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.


Mexico 2 – USA 1


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.”


Mexico 2 – USA 2


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.


Mexico 2 – USA 3


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.


Mexico 3 – USA 3


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.


Mexico 3 – USA 4


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.


Mexico 3 – USA 5


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.


Mexico 3 – USA 6


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.


Mexico 4 – USA 6


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!


Mexico 5 – USA 6


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!


Mexico 6 – USA 6


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.


Mexico 7 – USA 6


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.

——

Did Faces in the Crowd Deserve to Make it to the Finals?

Yes
No


8 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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:

Chile

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.

Germany

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.

Mexico

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.

USA

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.

7 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.


Mexico 1 – Uruguay 0


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!


Mexico 2 – Uruguay 0


Katrine Jensen: Mexico

Everybody should read Faces in the Crowd. Read it for Luiselli’s language. Read it for the masterly translation by MacSweeney.


Mexico 3 – Uruguay 0


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).


Mexico 4 – Uruguay 0


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.


Mexico 5 – Uruguay 0


Elianna Kan: Mexico

Mexico! A million times Mexico!


Mexico 6 – Uruguay 0


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.


Mexico 7 – Uruguay 0


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 . . .

——

Did Faces in the Crowd Deserve to Make it to the Semifinals?

Yes
No


20 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Katrine Øgaard Jensen. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

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)

Riverside Park

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.

——

Did Faces in the Crowd Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


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