Every so often, I fall in love at first page. It’s a pretty rare occurrence, even more so when that love is sustained throughout the book, but it does happen.
This is to say that one December evening, I picked up a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (translated from the Spanish by Christina McSweeney) from the library shelf. The first paragraph was a conversation between a young boy and his mother, in which the boy explains his theory on where mosquitoes come from. (The shower, if you’re curious.) Immediately thereafter came this:
It all began in another city and another life. That’s why I can’t write this story the way I would like to – as if I were still there, still just only that other person. I find it difficult to talk about streets and faces as if I saw them every day. I can’t find the correct tenses. I was young, had strong, slim legs.
(I would have liked to start the way Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ends.)
The ghostly quality of the words, the bizarre juxtaposition, and yes, the Hemingway reference: I knew that I was holding something magical.
Ghostly, it turns out, was the right descriptor. Although not a ghost story in the conventional sense of the term, Faces in the Crowd is most certainly a story about ghosts. Or, perhaps more specifically, ghostliness, disappearance, and death. From start to finish, the book is filled with characters who may or may not be ghosts and figments of each other’s imagination.
To begin with, there’s the narrator, a nameless woman living in Mexico City with her nameless husband and two nameless children (unless “boy” and “baby” count as names). The narrative, a novel she is writing, moves between her descriptions of present-day life and reminiscences of her more colorful youth in New York City.
She sets up these two existences as contrasting, and to some extent that they are. As a wife and mother, she rarely leaves her house, and between the demands of her children and her husband, can’t find a moment to just be. In her youth, on the other hand, she works as a translator of Spanish literature, runs with some wonderfully bizarre people, and is always out and about. Nonetheless, her language quickly makes clear how alienating and ghostly her earlier life is, as well.
Enter Gilberto Owen, a Mexican poet who lives in Harlem in the 1920s, and who the narrator discovers while researching Spanish writers to translate. She quickly becomes obsessed. When her boss refuses to publish Owen’s work because it is too obscure, the narrator forges a manuscript, which she passes off as Owen’s Spanish translations of a more famous writer’s poetry. Although the manuscript is published and receives much acclaim, she eventually outs her own lie.
But Owen doesn’t go away. Rather, the narrator begins to see his ghost wherever she goes, and allows his voice and stories – his youthful exploits with Harlem Renaissance figures, as well as his lonely final days in Philadelphia. In both time periods, he is also ghostly and alienated. Ultimately, she begins to show up as a ghost in his life – a red-coated girl, traveling on a subway line in the opposite direction.
Meanwhile, her present-day life is falling apart. Jealous after reading the novel-in-progress and discovering her youthful sexual exploits, her husband cheats on her and moves out. Or maybe he doesn’t. The narrator is unreliable by her own admission, and her husband reemerges at home after he’s supposedly left. In fact, it’s impossible to know how much of the narrative is true; the reader must guess and second-guess.
At this point, the narrator and Owen begin to merge, with her phrases echoed repeatedly in his, until she has almost disappeared. Although maybe it is her voice, since Owen’s narrative is her creation, right? Or maybe her narrative is his creation? The whole thing becomes wonderfully unclear as the ghosts and ghostliness take over.
What makes this all work particularly well is the narrative form. Early on, the narrator tells us, “I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts.” Consistent with this, the novel is a series of vignettes, each of which could stand on its own. The effect is a story that feels as breathless, broken, and ghostly as the characters that populate it.
A fair warning: this is not a novel for those who prefer strong plots. The plot is loose and somewhat unimportant. That said, reading the book is an eerie, beautiful, and visceral experience. It’s the kind of book that I read slowly, savoring each word and turn of phrase. The kind of book, ultimately, that makes me fall in love more deeply with each consecutive read. And yes, I’ve read it twice already.
Rachel Adler is a writer and editor who (truth be told) probably falls in love with books, movies, food, and cities a little too easily. But she promises that this book really is that good! She lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she is currently waiting very patiently for the snow to stop. Sometimes, when she’s in the mood, she updates her blog.