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.

32 thoughts on “Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd – Los ingrávidos (2011)

  1. I read one Bolano novel and rather liked it, and this sounds appealing too. I’m not on a total book ban, but I’m trying to slow it down, so this will go on a list to be reconsidered.

    • It was refreshingly different from most books I’ve read recently. I liked parts of Bolano but thought the book was far too long. Hers is quite short but a lot is very similar, mixing real and invented charcaters, reference to literature and writing and Bolano is mentioned a few times.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! When I read the first few paragraphs of your review, I thought, “This looks like Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Savage Detectives'” and a few lines later I saw you mention Bolano 🙂 I remember having a tough time grappling with Bolano’s multiple narrators’ monologues, but loving the book after getting used to it. I found it interesting that the writer’s name looks Italian while the book’s title is in Spanish and then discovering that the book is Mexican. I liked very much the passages that you have quoted. Luiselli’s prose is spare and beautiful. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • My pleasure. 🙂
      I struggled with Bolano, it was far too long for me.
      Luiselli’s book has only 150 pages. I was wondering if it wasn’t a homage to some extent.
      The name does sound Italian indeed. I know there are a lot of Italians in Argentina and maybe in Mexico too?

      • At 150 pages, it might be Bolano-lite 🙂 Interesting to know that you too found Bolano a little bit hard to read. I haven’t even tried reading his next book, the mammoth ‘2666’. Interesting to know that there are a lot of Italians in Argentina. I saw a Francis Ford Coppola movie called ‘Tetro’ sometime back which was about an Italian-American man who goes to live in Argentina. Your observation made me remember that.

        • “Bolano-lite” – that’s a good one, and to some degree, I agree.
          I find you can hear the Italian influence in the Spanish of Argentina. I had an Argentinian Spanish teacher at the university.
          I feel the same about 2666. especially since I’ve never finished The Savage Detectives. I still think I’d like 2666 more.

  3. I tend to like books composed of small sections. It keeps me interested.

    Of course the plot also sounds very literary which as far as I am concerned is a great thing.

    This also sounds like a story about a person who is in a bad place who once was a good place. This is an awful depressing type of story but oddly enough something else that I am drawn to.

    • I think you’d like this. Luiselli has studied philosophy and you can feel that quite often. There are various therories incorporated. Still, it’s readable.
      I didn’t warm to the charcater but I found it very interesting.

    • No, it isn’t. This just came out in English that’s why you might see a few reviews here and there.
      It’s very different, well worth reading if you’re also interested in writing as she tries to do something new.

  4. I’m curious about this one since I can’t get a sense if I would like it or not. I love different novels, but a cold narrator could get annoying to be. However, the concept and ideas are compelling.

  5. It sounds like a clever idea of a novel. I am pleased it’s not as confusing as is suggested by your ” it’s not the young woman anymore who writes about a writer but the writer who writes about the young woman”, Perhaps not quite my cup of tea as I am not a great fan of Bolano.

    • I could imagine it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but the structure is not random that’s why it wasn’t confusing. But I know there are people who even have a problem when there is dialogue withouth quotation marks.

  6. Ooh I hope Richard comments here as I’d like to know his thoughts about this one. It sounds most intriguing, and you make me think: I really must read more Bolano this year! Lovely review as ever, Caroline.

    • Thanks, Litlove. I was thinking of you when I read it, I think you might like it. I don’t think Richad has read it yet but I could be wrong. It should be right up his alley.

  7. Great review, Caroline. I have a friend who’s Italian and Peruvian and she said there are many Italians who emigrated to South America because the then-fascist government in Italy put limits on people going to the U.S.
    This sounds like a book I would very much enjoy.

  8. Interesting – a new one to me as well.

    I enjoyed Savage Detectives, and am sorry I gave up halfway through. There was wonderful stuff in it but it just goes on so. I might try to pick it up again.

    I like the “small section” approach to novel structure, when it’s one well it is very effective and engaging.

    • I’d say she does the “small section” very well. She does a lot well.
      I thought the Savage Detectives, as good as it was in places, was too long.
      I’d like to return to Bolaño but will read his short books and 2666 before returning to the Sac^vage Detectives.
      I’d be interested to read what you think of Luiselli.

  9. It intrigued me when I saw it in Stu’s list.

    I don’t think that’s for me, I’m not very good with poetry and there are apparently too many references I wouldn’t understand. (had the same problem with Bolano).

    • Given that it is short you would be able to enjoy it. It would only take looking up some 5 – 6 names. 🙂
      But it’s decidedly not an “after work” read, it takes some concentration. I’ve read it on the weekend.

  10. This sounds really good. I have Bolano’s 2666 on my reading pile, but I think I will have to be in the right mood for it. Maybe this would be a better place to start–it’s been quite a while since I’ve read any Mexican or South American writers (I went through a big phased quite a long time ago when I first was married). It almost sounds like flash fiction due to its brevity, which I think is sort of a big deal right now with Spanish language authors? In any case I’ve added this to my wish list.

    • I think she is a good starting point for a certain type of Latin American fiction, a bit less straightforward storytelling, very intersted in form and metafiction.
      And not as long as Bolano. He has his merits but the books are really so long.
      I used to read a lot of Latin American literature once as well. Flash Fiction is quite apt. it has elements of that. i’d be curious to hear how you like it.

  11. this book sounds so complex…I am not sure I can takle such book. The two characters will make me confuqe as I am a slow reader and might lost track who is who

  12. many thanks for the mention ,pleased you enjoyed it too ,I know trying to explain it make it seems complicated yet whe reading it is ,like diving in just being there .I think bolano is a influence her other half has a book out later this year on dalkey archive that I m looking forward too ,all the best stu

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