Faces in the Crowd
trans. Christina MacSweeney
Granta, paperback, 148 pages,
‘The boy asks:
What’s your book about, Mama?
It’s a ghost story.
Is it frightening?
No, but it’s a bit sad.
Why? Because the ghosts are dead?
No, they’re not dead.
Then they’re not very ghostly.
No, they’re not ghosts.’
The debut novel by Valeria Luiselli, lecturer at Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana in Mexico City, Faces in the Crowd is a book about ghosts. Her writing has already gained her attention as an emerging voice in the Latin American literary scene. Originally published in Spanish as in 2011, Faces in the Crowd has now found its way into English thanks to Granta Books, alongside her essay collection Papeles Falsos (Fake Papers), rebranded as Sidewalks.
A nameless narrator spends her evenings writing a novel. A mother of two, she recalls her early life working for a publishing house in New York, the books she worked on, her friends and the city itself. In New York she becomes fascinated by an obscure Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen, who lived in New York during the great depression, and her interest in his writing soon leading to obsession.
As she writes of her youth her husband grows inquisitive, questioning past lovers with a sense of jealously. So she turns to writing a second book, one told through the eyes of Owen. As she recounts Owen’s later years following his failed marriage and disintegrating health, she becomes ever more distant from her family (none have names, all are defined by roles; husband, boy, baby) – soon causing the line between the present day and the novel to merge into each other.
Throughout, the narrator reflects on the ghosts of those who have disappeared, and plays out a theory that during our lives we die many times. Characters see the faces of loved ones in inanimate objects and in the faces of strangers on the New York Subway system, transfixed by these visions of the past just as Ezra Pound, whose classic Imagist poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, to which the translated title cleverly alludes, may have thought he had caught a glimpse of a dead friend amongst the urban chaos of the Paris metro. Even the narrator’s own son speaks of ghosts in their family home and makes assumptions about their identity.
Indeed, such assumptions of cultural belonging mark Luiselli’s characters. The narrator and Owen are regularly referred to by their Latin American and more specifically, Mexican heritage. Similarly even minor characters such as an Ecuadorian Policeman are defined by their roots rather than by their role.
Faces in the Crowd is also necessarily a novel of outsider culture, those Latino cultural markers having repercussions in the New York publishing world. Luiselli takes opportune moments, before the lives of the narrator and Owen blend into themselves, to use the novel as a platform to criticize the standing of Latin American fiction within New York’s literary clique. The narrator works within a small publishing house where she translates ‘foreign gems’ that will never be bought. The chief editor known simply as ‘White’ discards any works that are not comparable to Roberto Bolaño; at one point he even has the audacity to ask if there is not simply any letters by or interviews with Bolaño that they could publish instead.
In just 148 pages Faces in the Crowd works through a complex and self-aware exploration of form and ideas, rather than being overly plot-driven. Unashamedly meta-fictional, Luiselli writes in pacey, short, often abrupt bursts to replicate the life of the narrator, who informs the reader from the outset that she writes around the lives of her family ‘A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.’ It is these restrictive bursts that give a much-needed framework to the narrative and prevent the novel from simply becoming a tedious experiment in form. As a chapter-less work the precision within these bursts defines segregation within the tense, granting the freedom to dart between the past and the present at will, and where necessary situate the focus of the novel, be it the family life of the narrator, her past, or the life of Owen.
In line with the meta-fictional context, the reader’s attention is repeatedly drawn into the novel’s structural workings as it describes its own form as ‘A horizontal novel, told vertically. A novel which has to be told from the outside to be read from within’. Paralleling its statacco pace, such formal inventiveness prevents the plot from becoming just another crass novel on ‘the life of the artist.’ As the segregation between the narrator and Owen diminishes, the weight of emphasis between the present day and the novel shifts, slowly erasing the narrator from the narrative, as she becomes another ghost.