Sidewalks Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli trans. Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press, May 2014) Reviewed by Meghan Houser

Sidewalks
Faces in the Crowd

by Valeria Luiselli
trans. Christina MacSweeney
(Coffee House Press, May 2014)

Reviewed by Meghan Houser

It would be easy to slot Valeria Luiselli’s writing into any number of interpretive schemes: millennial, female, Latin-American, NYC-by-way-of-elsewhere. It would be, that is, if her work weren’t such a powerful expression of agency in itself. Dispatched from the divide between life and art, Luiselli’s writing is deeply, inventively concerned with not only defining identity but freeing it from the constraints of definition. In this mode, she offers a fresh equation between written and lived experience, centering the locus of artist-hood and personhood in neither one nor the other, but in the elusive gulf between. Her metaphors are spatial—cities and maps, architecture and navigation—and while she explores how her characters inhabit their physical surroundings, the architecture she’s ultimately concerned with is writing itself, that most elastic human construct. How do we inhabit the invented spaces of language, which, to Luiselli at least, occupy at least as much of our consciousness as the world in which we move? Layering artifice and accident, what she creates are houses of ghosts, but not Allende’s; invisible cities, but not Calvino’s; visceral realism, but not Bolaño’s. In Luiselli’s universe, language can link the stuff of the world to the life of the mind.

Luiselli’s essay collection, Sidewalks, was released in Mexico when she was 26 to wide acclaim, and its ranks of admirers have only grown (Adam Thirlwell called it one of his “books of the year” in the Times Literary Supplement; the Daily Telegraph declared Luiselli an “extraordinary new talent”). It is a book of cities, a travelogue of sorts that takes us from a literary pilgrimage to Venice, to Luiselli’s hometown of Mexico City, to her adopted home of Manhattan, and back again and back again, considering each city from various angles—Mexico City by air and by bicycle; Venice City as a graveyard and as a thriving civic center; Manhattan from inside its buildings and below its sidewalks. Cues are taken from metropolis-defining perambulators like Baudelaire and Benjamin, as Luiselli wanders urban spaces and muses on how we relate to them, but the collection is also very much a meta-narrative, interrogating, poking fun at, considering that flâneur discourse and whether it’s even a useful way of looking at cities. (One of the essays here is called “Manifesto à Velo”; Luiselli is firmly a biker, not a walker.) But more than an exercise in literary urban theory, the collection is also a deeply personal reflection, with Luiselli mapping the intellectual landscape that sustains her onto the physical spaces that contain her, trying to find her human dimensions in the overlay.

Sidewalks begins with Luiselli finding Joseph Brodsky’s grave in Venice, and from the start written and material worlds are confused. As she searches the cemetery, she muses: “We have to read the eyes of strangers, as an epitaph is read, until we find the exact insignia—the lapidary yes-it’s-me of the person, alive or dead, waiting for us.” This is an elegant but also problematic equation; it’s all well and good to compare reading epitaphs to searching a room of strangers’ eyes, but there can hardly be the same reciprocal acknowledgment from a grave as a living person. The moment evokes both Luiselli’s desire to place her literary icons in “real world” context—she couldn’t just read Brodsky, she had to make a pilgrimage to where he lived and wrote—and also the futility of this desire. The bleakly funny scene of Luiselli at the grave, recalling a photo of Brodsky but interrupted by an elderly local there to steal the tchotchkes left by other mourners, reinforces the hopelessness. Yet this is but Luiselli’s point of departure, casting a gauntlet to be taken up in the remainder of the essays.

Luiselli soon turns from the geography of ghosts to her own, considered on every scale from cities and streets to rooms and the objects and bodies within. Luiselli’s relationship to her surroundings is complex. On the one hand, their solidity can be reassuring. She affectionately lists household and streetside banalities in more than one essay (apartment inventory: “folding dining table, folding chair, four-shelf bookcase, armchair upholstered in green, single bed, fridge, stove”), and, after a bathroom-mirror confrontation with the strangeness of her own face (“I have a face full of gaps”), it is “a coffee, a newspaper on the table” that bring her back. On the other hand, the matryoshka-doll layers of physical space around her can be disorienting, confining, polluting. The only vantage from which Luiselli can conceive Mexico City is the distant remove of an airplane, from which “the city is almost comprehensible—a simpler representation of itself, to the scale of the human imagination.” Human bodies fit uncomfortably in these metropolitan scales. Discussing a murder near her building, Luiselli writes “The following day his outline appeared in white chalk on the sidewalk. Did the hand of the person who skirted the coastline of his body tremble? The city, its sidewalks: an enormous blackboard—instead of numbers, we add up bodies.” An inscription of sorts—that chalk outline—seeks to bridge the distance, to join a human process to its setting, but as with Brodsky’s quiet, faceless epitaph, it falls short.

This gets to the crux of Luiselli’s struggle to map herself in her world: that her most beloved tool for understanding and expression, language, is inadequate to the task, because language is itself a function of dissociation. In “Stuttering Cities,” she identifies the paradox: “Language breaches our direct relationship with the world and words are an attempt to cross the unbridgeable gap . . . A child who learns a new word acquires a bridge to the world, but only in compensation for the chasm which opens up within him the moment that word is imprinted there.” Her favored way of relating to the world (of growing up, she writes, “My world was shaped by books—not vice versa”) is the very mechanism that has distanced her from it. So what’s a woman of both cities and letters to do?

Luiselli finds her answer in the concept of relingos, or empty spaces. In a city, these might literally be vacant lots, or any “ambiguous” or “residual” corners. She argues that cities need these as “a sort of depository of possibilities, a place that can be seized by the imagination and inhabited by our phantom-follies . . . those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.” She cites Roland Barthes’ argument that architecture should be not only functional but also “the projection of an impossibility.” By this valuation, she has suddenly created in physical space a space for ideas, and from this it is a short jump to writing. “Prose is for those with a builder’s spirit,” she concludes, but “writing isn’t filling gaps—nor is it constructing a house, a building, just to fill up an empty space.” Instead, “a writer is a person who distributes silences and empty spaces. Writing: making relingos.” In those spaces that can’t be either described or built upon, because they are by definition ambiguous, Luiselli locates the threshold between language and life.

In the essay “Other Rooms,” Luiselli describes the “liminal wisdom” of night-shift doormen, whom she calls “the only true free-thinkers,” inhabiting as they do the stateless threshold between public and private space. This “liminal wisdom” is the value of relingos; Luiselli argues that the surest way to “get to know yourself better” is to “construct small, fleeting intimacies” in such in-between places. These can be physical—sleeping on borrowed couches, lingering with doormen—but for Luiselli, the relingo she really wants to explore is the aforementioned art-life link: “Language and the city,” she declares, “are the threshold in which I wait for the next earthquake.” She (tacitly) invites the reader to join her: her spare, koan-like paragraphs, surrounded by generous white space, create physical relingos on the page.

In the last essay, a continuation of the Venice pilgrimage, Luiselli gets her earthquake. Locked out of her accommodations after visiting the cemetery, she has to sleep on a bench, where she is beset by acute stomach pain. She takes the opportunity to muse that, despite her sometime convictions, “Nothing was further from the truth, in my life at least, than the metaphor of literature as a habitable place or permanent dwelling . . . The thought of dying on a bench reading Brodsky was romantic. But books don’t give us a mattress to sleep on, a shower with hot water, or relief from real pain.” In the morning she calls a friend for help, he signs her up for residential status so she can get free healthcare, a doctor quickly diagnoses and treats her stomach condition. And suddenly she has made Venice her own, if not a permanent dwelling then at least a fleetingly intimate one. She concludes, fittingly, on liminal ground: “It comforts me to think that if I die before my time, at least I’ll . . . be able to fulfill my wish of being buried in some relingo, perhaps not far from Joseph Brodsky.”

 

Faces in the Crowd, Luiselli’s second book and first novel, is titled after Ezra Pound’s famous distillation of metropolitan anomie: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / petals on a wet, black bough.” Like Sidewalks, Faces contends with finding space for individual humanity in a teeming city, and with the utility of language/writing in this search. And yet it is a different animal—as befits Pound’s striking fractal of urban experience, it’s stranger, more elliptical, at once more reticent and more hauntingly vivid (or vividly haunting). She has called it a “defense of fiction,” and it is; Luiselli’s literary lights here are not just graves anymore, but revenants. The conversation that was necessarily one-sided in the Venice cemetery becomes a genuine exchange, a dialogue among sinners instead of a prayer to saints. The relingos of Sidewalks, those threshold spaces to “be seized by the imagination,” are here not just constructed but explored, and in the resultant “phantom-follies” and “impossible projections” Luiselli finds fresh nuances in the boundaries between past and present, self and other, literature and life.

Faces opens with a young mother in Mexico City writing an (ostensibly) autobiographical novel of her days as a twenty-something living in Harlem and working at a publishing house. In her novel, the narrator becomes obsessed with an obscure Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen, who had lived and written in Harlem as a young man during the 1920s. Spurred by a feeling of kinship, the young woman convinces her employer to publish her translations of Owen’s poems, but even this professional victory cannot quell her creeping doubts about life in New York—whether she fits in, whether it’s healthy or productive for her to be there. Meanwhile, the young mother in Mexico City deals with growing marital tension, her insecurities as a writer, and the insistent questions of her precocious son.

Then the unexpected: Gilberto Owen begins his own narrative, jumping back and forth between his heady youth in Harlem and his unhappy twilight in 1940’s Philadelphia, divorced, obese, drunk and going blind. Owen and the young mother trade vignettes, jumping back and forth between their pasts and presents; it’s at times ambiguous which narrator is speaking. Realism skews as the narrators intrude not just upon one another’s words but their lives—they become faces seen fleetingly, impossibly by each other’s characters; they have the same cats. Owen’s story starts to dominate the text, but there’s still an odd parity: as the woman’s space on the page fades, Owen depicts himself literally fading. Not only is he going blind, but every time he weighs himself he weighs less . . . he is disappearing from pictures . . . his ex-wife takes the kids to Europe without him. Both narrators seem to be becoming ghosts, “weightless ones” (as in the novel’s Spanish title, Los Ingrávidos)—but as the novel draws to its bewildering, poignant climax, their parallel fates diverge.

From the start, the same concerns that propelled Sidewalks are apparent here. The young woman in Harlem seems to live according to Luiselli’s instructions in “Other Rooms”: uncomfortable in her own space, she spends the night in other beds, on couches and in hallways, searching for “fleeting intimacies” with anything and everything—how her gray tights blend into the sidewalk, her occasional lovers, the way she’s memorized her neighbor’s routines. As with the Luiselli that trekked to Venice, her favored mode of connection is literary; even before she becomes obsessed with Owen, she maps her routes through the city with quotes. But this lens isn’t enough; she still feels displaced in the city, lost and lonely, to the extent that she finally leaves.

The novelist’s struggle adds a layer of complexity to this, as it is both personal and creative, both with her sense of self and her abilities as a writer. Early on she unfavorably compares her project to her architect husband’s blueprints, complaining that while he can create spaces for people to live she can only “emulate her ghosts.” She adjusts and readjusts, like an architect at a drafting table—“a horizontal novel, told vertically”; “a vertical novel, told horizontally.” She talks about how she needs this work to find a space for herself, disappeared as she feels; how she loves “the tabula rasa of the pages and plans, the anonymity the multiple voices of the writing offer me,” how marriage grounded her geographically and having kids “filled a space,” yet how she remains unfulfilled; it all seems to be going down a dark road, her past and present selves each lost and unable to orient themselves through that source of direction they had thought most dependable: writing.

Then Gilberto steps in, and as he gains strength and solidity and mother and young woman become more and more “ghosts” of the manuscript, we see the transformative power of writing for good and ill. Gilberto’s is a cautionary tale—the epigraph of the book states “beware! if you play at ghosts, you become one,” and Owen, having tried too long and too thoroughly to live through words alone, becomes proof of this. In a particularly bombastic literary discussion, comparing himself to an incontrovertible verb tense, his friend replies quietly, “You are not an utterance.” It is a prescient warning. Owen’s demise is a writer classic: drunk, withdrawn, alienated, with only the ghosts of literature for company.

But the novelist, happily, is no such martyr to her craft, as she comes to embrace more and more strongly. In an echo of Sidewalk’s relingos, she ponders, “I know I need a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.” She does this so well that she gradually writes herself out of the book almost entirely, as her creation takes on a life of its own—which is to say, by her logic, that she has more and more space to live herself. Later she writes that “The children play hide-and-seek in this house full of holes”; she has made room for the evolution of possibilities both on and off the page. The novel’s climax features a literal earthquake, which makes a ready companion to the pivotal collision of art and life in Sidewalks. (This also underscores Faces as a “defense of fiction”—what was necessarily figurative in Luiselli’s essays becomes here powerfully immediate.) The novelist takes shelter with her children, making a safe space for all of them in the shuddering house. In the aftermath, her baby crawls over all her fallen books, the architecture dashed and more beautiful for its collapse, life running roughshod over art and in that act, creating a whole new vocabulary, thriving where another went to join the ghosts.

 

A major review of Faces taglined Luiselli as “an exciting new female voice in a new wave of Latin American fiction.” Accurate as those qualifiers may be, I winced anew at our insistence on labeling, parsing our writers—Latin American literature comes in “waves,” as if there were space between the swells; as if Luiselli, who grew up in South Africa and has written in and about New York and whose literary lights span continents and centuries was solely “Latin American”; as if “fiction,” even, is a satisfactory label for someone who has written a novel so forthrightly concerned with its own process. That kind of grouping falsely collapses the dimensions of all her invisible cities, her diverse hauntings, the idiosyncrasy of her burgeoning literary footprint. It’s impossible for us, the reader, not to organize and associate, but we would do well to take to heart Luiselli’s point about language, that every attempt at definition removes us from the reality. Happily, Luiselli is already defending her hard-won “liminal wisdom,” for herself and for anyone else dedicated to the project of mapping the terrain bridging literature and life. She is fast carving out a space for herself in today’s literary terrain, the dimensions of which are fully in her power to map and re-map. Whatever the shape of her burgeoning cultural presence, she is poised to cast a long shadow.

 

Meghan Houser is an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf.