Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd – Los ingrávidos (2011)

Faces in the Crowd

I discovered Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd – Los ingrávidos on Stu’s best of list last year. Somehow I had missed his review (here). The book sounded really interesting and since I was in the mood for some unconventional writing, this was just the book to match the mood. Valeria Luiselli is a Mexican writer and has published essays and short pieces. Faces in the Crowd is her first novel.

The narrator of  Faces in the Crowd is a young married woman.  She lives with her husband and two kids in Mexico City and leads a life which is far from fulfilling. She decides to write a novel about her time in New York where she worked for an editor and met a lot of colorful people. Writing the novel isn’t easy. Her life isn’t her life, her children claim a large part. Her writing isn’t her writing, as her husband reads it and gets jealous.

The book has an interesting structure. It consist of small and very small paragraphs and episodes, some are up to two pages long, many not much longer than a sentence or two. In the beginning the narrative jumps from the present to the past but in the middle of the novel the narrative voices start to multiply.

Leave a life. Blow everything up. No, not everything: blow up the square meter you occupy among people. Or better still: leave empty chairs at the table you once shared with your friends, not metaphorically, but really, leave a chair, become a gap for your friends, allow the circle of silence around you to swell and fill with speculation. What few people understand is that you leave one life to start another.

The narrator is very interested in the poems of Gilberto Owen, an Mexican poet who lived in New York. His voice will be one of the most important ones towards the end of the book and we are led to believe that it’s not the young woman anymore who writes about a writer but the writer who writes about the young woman.

This may sound quite confusing but it’s not, it is always clear whether we are in New York or Mexico City and who is telling the story. It’s a unusual book and I was reminded of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives more than once. Faces in the Crowd may very well be a novel but it has a lot of non-fiction elements. Many poets and writers like Ezra Pound, Gilberto Owen, Federico García Lorca, Nella Larsen are present. Many of the sequences circle around topics like reality and imagination, the boundaries between the two, illusions and inventions. Many symbols and stories echo and multiply throughout the novel. Early on there is the story of Ezra Pound who believes he has seen the face of  a dead friend who had been killed in the trenches on the subway. This is a recurring element. The young woman believes she has seen Gilberto Owen’s face on the subway, although he is long-dead and later, when he tells the story, he believes to see hers. The book is populated by real and imaginary people and their ghosts.

I’m glad I’ve read Faces in the Crowd, it’s very different. It’s a book to read again, slowly. Some of the paragraphs and sequences even work on their own and they are all very different in tone and style.  Some contain small stories, some are thoughts, philosophical reflections, meditations, some are like small poems. There is a reason for this structure as the narrator tells us in the beginning:

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.

The only reservation I had,  was the woman’s voice and the lack of atmosphere. I thought she was a very cold and distant character and not likable at all, especially in the parts set in the present. It’s as if she is dead inside. A ghost. Which she probably is.

The narrator of the novel should be like an Emily Dickinson. A woman who remains eternally locked up in her house, or in a subway carriage, it makes no difference which, talking with her ghosts and trying to piece together a series of broken thoughts.

If you like unusual books or are a fan of Bolaño’s writing, you should give it a try. It’s rare that I pick up a book after having finished it and re-read passages, and find they have even more meaning read out of context.