Latin American fiction has long distorted the real and imagined, leaving readers unsure of where one ends and the other begins. The first novel by Mexican-born writer Valeria Luiselli pushes this idea further. The narrator's reality becomes closely interwoven with fiction, her life eventually indistinguishable from that of little-known Mexican poet Gilberto Owen.
Our nameless narrator, unhappily married with two children, is writing from Mexico City, where she feels "short of breath" and craves "narrative order". She sets out to write a novel, to create a space of her own to inhabit. We meet her motley group of acquaintances, none more vividly remembered than the ghost of Gilberto Owen, a marginal figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 20s and 30s. Her interest in Owen, purely professional at first, spirals into obsession. She sees him on the subway, and her life begins to mirror his.
Then Owen's voice creeps into the prose. He too rides the subway each day, and weighs himself to find that – despite his growing size – he is becoming lighter. He starts to see, "on parallel tracks", a ghost-like "woman with sad eyes" – our narrator – and yet he grows steadily blinder. He stops showing up in photographs. He is a "3lb fat blind man" who is "rubbing [him]self out". The two characters are dissolving into one another's worlds.
Luiselli's novel stands apart from most Latin American fiction. She avoids worn-out narratives about drug wars and violence, and her downbeat supernaturalism feels quite different from the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez. Concerned, above all, with literature's ability to transcend time and space, Faces in the Crowd signals the appearance of an exciting female voice to join a new wave of Latino writers.
The author plants ideas – like suggesting that all the characters are dead throughout – that are never confirmed. She leaves us juggling with possibilities. I tweeted her, observing she had omitted an overarching message or concrete conclusion. She concurred: "I don't believe in the 'grand finale'. I hate Wagner."
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