My Documents  by  Alejandro Zambra  trans.  Megan McDowell  (McSweeney's, January 2015; Fitzcarraldo, April 2015)  Reviewed by  Craig Epplin

My Documents
by Alejandro Zambra
trans. Megan McDowell
(McSweeney's, January 2015; Fitzcarraldo, April 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Epplin

Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents begins with a memory of a computer in an office. A father grandly shows off the machine to his five-year-old son. The boy feigns interest before going off to play next to the secretary, who sits working at an electric typewriter. The boy prefers the typewriter to the computer, but what he’s really drawn to is the older, more mechanical Olivetti next to it. We might gather that he likes to see the parts in motion, the whole process and not just the finished results. But by the time we’ve come to this conclusion, this first memory has given way to another, for it turns out that the Olivetti on the secretary’s desk was the same model his mother always used for transcribing the songs and poems written by his grandmother. It’s a family labor of love, impossible not to read as a fond recollection, and the machine is one that his mother is adept at: “She always typed very quickly, using all of her fingers, without looking at the keyboard.”

More memories come quickly. The young narrator learns to type, but he turns out to be more a percussionist than a scrivener or writer. He learns his name but is more interested in the sound of the keys and the typebars’ heads striking the platen. He compares the sound to the drumrolls of military marches. We can imagine the nonsense that this child would produce (if in fact he used paper)—a long string of alternating f’s and j’s, perhaps, his index fingers tapping as fast as the keys would allow. Or we can imagine him jamming the machine, hitting keys with all his fingers at once—a cacophonous, overpopulated chord. In any case, he’s using the machine for something other than writing.

Already in these first few pages, Zambra touches on some of his book’s main themes. Intimate memories, our bodily relationships with machines, the generational succession of technology, the lure of non-writing, and rhythm as a measure of experience—these concerns wind their way through many of these stories. They are compactly present from the beginning, nested in the opening pages of a memoir-like story titled “My Documents,” which in turn inhabits the first pages of a collection of the same name. This recursive structure is no accident. Rather, it mimics the nested pattern typical of personal computer files, which can be copied and moved around, which can have shortcuts of the same name, which can be printed out and put together as a book. This is precisely the effect that My Documents seemingly wants to cause: the impression that each individual story forms part of a loosely-conceived totality, held together by proximity as much as by thematic concerns or authorial obsessions. These are just notes, some of the stories seem to say, while others feel more polished. Journal entries, fragments, lists, bad jokes, and regular short stories—Zambra alludes to a number of different genres of writing, yet My Documents still feels cohesively unified by those themes present at the outset.

The story “I Smoked Very Well” exemplifies how some of these genres work together. It is a story structured around a list, a chronicle of the experience of quitting smoking, or not fully quitting smoking, with the help of the prescription medicine Champix. The story opens on the fourteenth day of a ninety-day treatment, the final day of tapering: “The last cigarette of my life,” the narrator says. “I just smoked it,” repeating one of the most common lies told by humans to themselves. He details exactly how long it lasted (six minutes, seven seconds) and describes the previous two-week process of cutting back. He is painstaking about numbers, and as a whole the story reads like a log, as we’re constantly told what day we’re on, how many have passed since the last cigarette, how many he smoked during a relapse, etc. Concerned about the side effects of the medication, he does some research and dutifully reports back to the reader:

I read on the Internet that in the span of a year, 227 cases of attempted suicide were reported, along with 397 cases of psychotic disorders, 525 cases of violent behavior, 41 cases of homicidal thoughts, 60 cases of paranoia, and 55 cases of hallucinations. I don’t believe any of that.

He doesn’t believe it, but he still records it. Statistics might lie, for one reason or another, but they’re seductive enough that they merit inclusion in the story.

This narrator is consumed by counting. At one point, he tells us that he’s used an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the cumulative financial cost of smoking over the years. (Intriguingly, this figure is the only number he doesn’t reveal.) And it isn’t too hard to imagine a spreadsheet as the ideal home for this story, which reads like an elaborately annotated list. It’s entirely appropriate that at one point Zambra quotes a poem by Nicanor Parra, his Chilean compatriot and the author of Poemas y antipoemas. He specifically quotes a poem where Parra tallies up his life: seventeen trees planted, six children, seven works published, for a grand total of thirty accomplishments. It’s a wry poem, sad and funny like many of Parra’s, and it serves Zambra well as a model.

It works as a model not only because it is a list, but also because of the first entry. Trees, seventeen of them here, seemed to matter a lot to Parra, who has devoted several of his poems to them. In one, he says trees are nothing but “chairs and tables in perpetual movement,” subtracting anything natural or non-utilitarian from them and eliminating their majestic dimensions. Trees, understood in a similar way, also matter to Zambra, whose earlier novels bear such titles as Bonsai and The Private Life of Trees. Of the former, he has said that the model he had in mind was Jorge Luis Borges, who counseled writers to write summaries of imaginary works, rather than the actual works themselves. Indeed, a bonsai tree is the coiffed, abbreviated summary of a tree, closer to a sculpture or a piece of furniture than an oak or a maple.

A similar concept guides much of My Documents. Many of these stories feel like shortened forms of more extensive, antecedent texts. They are manila folders standing in for the whole archive. In one section of “National Institute,” for example, more than thirty short paragraphs begin with the clause “I remember,” giving us brief fragments of recollection, rather than fully developed, fleshed out memories. These fragments hint at the existence of more text, or at least the possibility of it, but they don’t allow us access. And in “I Smoked Very Well,” the narrator muses that smoking was so connected to writing that he might have to give up the latter. “I could smoke without writing, of course, but I couldn’t write without smoking. That’s why I’m scared now: What if I quit writing? The only thing I’ve been able to write since I quit are these notes.” If we believe him, we’ve been left with nothing but the remainder of an exercise that was never completed. Just fragments, just notes—these are bonsai stories.

This aspect of My Documents seems to fit with the notion that the stories are best understood precisely as documents. This word is bland, useful in as much as it names nothing specific. Computers come with ready-made folders named for the documents that will fill them; the suffix for Microsoft Word files, .doc, has become ubiquitous.  That’s because computers and word processors don’t know and don’t care what sort of writing we’re using them for. A story like “The Most Chilean Man in the World,” whose thin plot seems to function mostly as a delivery device for a bad joke, is a document. So is “Long Distance,” a story whose characters—a phone operator who teaches writing at a sketchy school; a bourgeois dandy who hits on him for weeks without him realizing it; a class full of students who end up losing their tuition money when the school closes; one of those students, who engages the phone operator in an elaborate game of exchanges, sexual and otherwise—are all emotionally palpable and real in their struggles and middle-class aspirations. The two stories function differently, in other words, but they and the rest are all documents—all “my documents”—which is to say that the lists and numbers coexist with the short, memorable expositions of lives that make up so many stories in this collection.

This tension reflects contradictory desires. On the one hand, Zambra seemingly wants to convey a certain kind of indifference. Writing is a neutral and mechanical—or, at the very least, aimless—exercise. Typing is just another way of making noise, to return to the child from the first story. “I’m a correspondent, but I’d like to know of what,” we read in “I Smoked Very Well.” But at the same time, these same stories reveal the opposite: an intense interest in human motivation and the complexity that comes with numbers greater than one. For example, in “The Most Chilean Man in the World,” the protagonist misguidedly decides to surprise his ex-girlfriend by flying to Belgium to see her. He arrives and is immediately rebuffed in invisible, memorable fashion:

It must be said that Elisa could have been nicer, a little less cruel. But if she had been nicer, he might not have understood. She didn’t want to leave that possibility open. He called her from the station, and Elisa thought it was a joke, but she started walking toward him anyway, talking to him on the phone all the while. Then, she turned a corner and saw him, a hundred steps away, but she didn’t tell him she was there and he went right on talking, sitting on his suitcase, half-numb and anxious, looking at the ground and then at the sky with a mixture of confidence and innocence that was repulsive to Elisa—she couldn’t put her feelings, her thoughts, in order, but she was sure of one thing: she didn’t want to spend the coming days with Rodrigo, not those days or any others, none.

The story’s plot is minimal, but this short passage paints a rich world of mixed feelings. Zambra doesn’t mention remorse, he doesn’t mention disappointment, but these sensations are tangible in the description. He also doesn’t tell us much about what their relationship was like before (a thumbnail sketch opens the story), but he leaves us clues and a wide-open space for imagination. This description, Elisa’s disgust at Rodrigo’s blithe confidence, is anything but indifferent.

Perhaps there’s no contradiction her to be resolved. Perhaps we can deduce that the base-level reality of these stories’ emotional world is simply a quiet indifference. A man is house-sitting for a distant relative and loses track of the family cat. He can’t find a picture on the computer to print and hang around the neighborhood, so he opts to use a picture of any old gray cat that he finds online. His solution is unassailable from a practical point of view, and in this mix of cool rationality and probable distress it shows how indifference breeds an emotional life all of its own. In another story, a man can’t decide what to name a pet cat because he can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl. “He calls it Argentina or Argentino indiscriminately.” Even once he decides on one or the other, the cat will still just have a nationality in place of a proper name. The character’s casual indecision reflects his general malaise. The story’s last lines are exemplary: “Then he lies down and masturbates mechanically, without thinking about anyone. He wipes the semen on the sheets as he falls asleep.”

Perhaps unexpectedly, this indifference can help us understand the many instances of rhythm in My Documents. The same boy who compared typing to a drumroll tells us that he “listened to military marches every day” and was once chastised by a priest for his bad timing in serving mass: “he told us we distracted him, that we were too shrill, that we had no rhythm.” In another story, a similar boy tries to synchronize his blinking eyes in a moving car with the lights outside. “I fervently believed,” he says, “that only if I blinked between street lights would we all be kept safe.” Later on in his life, we see him stand on a corner, counting the bicycles speeding by. He’s recreated the earlier situation but now with his own body in the place of the lampposts. Elsewhere we read, “Cigarettes are the punctuation marks of life,” and earlier we had seen the same speaker measure out a walk in terms of the duration of exactly two smokes. In all these cases, rhythm names something of vital importance to someone. It coincides with an instance of personal education or survival, intense disappointment or addiction. But the measure itself is indifferent to the things it’s measuring. A musician might attach all sorts of meaning to a metronome, but the instrument itself is cold and distant in its constant ticking. Rhythm is personal but also coolly objective. The rhythms that punctuate My Documents embody both terms of this contrast and their attendant emotional registers.

If we read these stories attuned to the collection’s title, we might suspect that this mix of passionate attachments and intense indifference has something to do with the social life of computers themselves. “Memories of a Personal Computer” centers on a couple and their own lived connections with a PC, a machine that stimulates their romantic relationship and then hastens its demise and that ends up dusty and forgotten in a basement by the story’s end. And then there’s the end of “My Documents,” the opening story, where the narrator has finally traced his memories up to the present moment, to the night when the story ends:

It’s nighttime, it’s always nighttime when the story ends. I reread, rephrase sentences, specify names. I try to remember better: more, and better. I cut and paste, change and enlarge the font, play with line spacing. I think about closing this file and leaving it forever in the My Documents folder. But I’m going to publish it, I want to, even though it’s not finished, even though it’s impossible to finish it.

The scene Zambra draws is likely familiar to many of his readers. Fiddling with superficial changes to a document, writing or reading in a state of simultaneous distraction and personal investment—this emotional experience is certainly common today. Zambra approaches it humbly, at the level of personal sensation. He hints at the big, vague, unanswerable question of what computers mean for literature, but he doesn’t venture a response. Rather, he leaves us with many brief narrative arcs, little sketches that shed intermittent light on the emotional life of the people who, besides other things, are accustomed to using computer files.

Craig Epplin is an assistant professor at Portland State University, where he teaches classes on Latin-American literature and visual arts.