Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
Coffee House Press, 2014; 146 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
There’s a certain expectation we place on ‘reality’ in storytelling that I find particularly unfair; namely, that somewhere down at the core of a story is something unshakable, some baseline capital T Truth that we can build on. It’s as though we, the readers, think the proper way to engage with a story should look basically like the way scientists have chased their way down the microscope, looking for smaller and smaller particles, looking for what’s immutable. If the reader can’t find that truth, it’s likely to feel to him like a bad joke at his expense. Can I blame Nabokov and Pale Fire for this sentiment? I’m going to, and I’m going to advocate for dropping it as a strategy for encountering narrative, because what this model of reading fails to reckon with is that truth in storytelling is always a negotiated truth—the literal-minded attitude that many adopt is foolishness from page one, word one.
All of this is to say that Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd is a phenomenological, shifting, contemplative book that I probably couldn’t convince my mother to like. It begins with the story of a woman with two children and a husband and a novel in progress based on her younger life. What starts as a straightforward back-and-forth between the ‘real’ of the woman’s home life and the ‘imagined’ of her recollections begins to spiral as the novel follows her discovery of Gilberto Owen, her attempts to canonize him through manipulation and forgery, her husband’s jealousy (which leads to the construction of another novel-in-progress specifically for him to discover and read), and the eventual blurring of the lines between what is real not only in her life, but in Owen’s life as well, and which of these many threads is the Truth. Add to that Luiselli’s liberal use of real-life details from the period (Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” seminal hoarders Homer and Langley Collyer, Owen himself) and the narrator’s version of Gilberto Owen starts to feel naggingly real both in and out of the context of the book.
Which probably sounds like a lot of postmodern Borgesian hootenanny, and maybe it is. What grounds the novel is the emotional clarity in the writing, and what brings all these threads together is the way psychological and physical details start to rhyme within all the shifting narratives. There’s an urgency to this book that I found both challenging and engaging—as the reality of the narrative crumbled, and as the characters became their own ghosts, the feeling of loss that Luiselli is trying to explore began to resemble my own.
It’s a subtle thing, when a book begins to mirror itself. It doesn’t happen often, and it requires the kind of assuredness/fearlessness that Luiselli makes look easy. I’m sure a number of readers will find this book disorienting or unapproachable (and I feel sorry for the reader who mistakes the breezy-ish, Post-It note emblazoned cover as a sign of what’s inside). Those who don’t will find something yearning and a little messy and honest.