David Toscana’s The Last Reader stands as a challenge for the most dedicated readers. On the upside, it’s a challenge worth taking. Toscana’s novella vaguely imitates a murder mystery, but the real focus lies in blurring the lines between active reading and authorship, and more generally between reality and fiction.
The Last Reader is set in Icamole, a small impoverished village in Mexico, in the middle of a yearlong drought. Wealthy Remigio takes pride (and showers) in water that lines the bottom of his well, until the day he finds the water obstructed by a teenage girl’s corpse. Remigio goes to his father, Lucio, for advice, and here we meet the titular character. Lucio is Icamole’s last and only reader. When Remigio presents the problem of the corpse, Lucio reacts with the bibliophile’s instinct—he looks to his library. He zeroes in on a French novel, The Death of Babette, whose heroine’s physical description matches that of the corpse. Lucio names the corpse Babette, and suggests Remigio bury Babette in his garden, like the killer in The Apple Tree.
With this premise, Toscana’s scheme is set in motion. Lucio, the esoteric, lovably bookish father, quickly wins our hearts. (By contrast, Remigio, selfish with his water and wary of Lucio’s advice, seems a bit more questionable.) It’s fun to read about how Lucio organizes the abandoned library with great dedication and verve. Books he likes find a place on the library shelves, but any book he deigns trite (including the amusingly obvious anti-racism manifesto The Color of Heaven) or otherwise lacking gets marked “Withdrawn” and thrown into a cockroach-infested “book hell” with other rejected titles. As he works, Lucio offers the reader tips to quickly evaluate book quality. For example, he claims the ending of a book (though not the beginning) is an effective measurement of overall quality.
With such qualifications about good and bad novels, Toscana sets up a high standard for his own novel, and yet he does not disappoint. Toscana’s cleverly created characters, one bound to please and the other to disappoint, ultimately challenge the reader’s surface-level assumptions. Also challenging is Toscana’s stream-of-consciousness prose, translated by Asa Zatz. The novel does not employ quotation marks to distinguish between dialogue and the other text. This forces readers to tread carefully, especially when Lucio offers everyone direct quotes from his favorite books. As with many of the challenges and frustrations in Toscana’s book, this device serves a bigger purpose, eliminating the distance between Lucio’s total obsession with the fictional world and the readers’ own blind acceptance of Toscana’s words.
Thus, Toscana’s challenges to the reader are far more purposeful than arbitrary, and the result is that the clever little book (some will argue too clever for its own good) has won numerous awards, most prestigiously being shortlisted for the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize. And the journey to the novel’s astounding conclusion, if rigorous, is hardly painful. Toscana’s rambling, and at times distancing, prose occasionally tips toward the luscious:
There is nothing like the smoothness of [Remigio’s] avocadoes, for which reason, on some nights he throws a few in the bed and stretches out with them. He offers them caresses, flattery. They are lovers with supple hands and noticeable breasts, disposable lovers, no name, no obligations, and no future, because they wake up squashed on the sheets after having sacrificed everything for love. The avocado was the fruit of temptation, without a doubt, although people liked to believe it was the apple, an inept whore with a smooth skin but a rigid body, sticky, no discretion in biting, which gets old all at once and consorts with flies and other insects. He knows that his girl is better off [buried] under the avocado tree.
If Lucio occasionally gets lost in his favorite prose, well, perhaps we cannot blame him. But this is entirely Toscana’s point: he has crafted a novel specially for bibliophiles, a novel that highlights the perils, perversions, and joys of losing oneself in a fantastic book.
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“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
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“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .