Valeria Luiselli’s debut novel Faces in the Crowd is a curious thing. In its 148 pages, an unnamed female narrator writes a book about the lesser known Mexican poet Gilberto Owen. She frames this with comments about her current family life – she is married with two children, a boy and a girl – and the life she had before she married when she lived in an ‘almost empty apartment’ and worked as a reader and translator in a small publishing house dedicated to ‘foreign gems’.
The novel is divided into vignettes ranging between two lines and four pages long which glide between her two lives and, from about a third of the way in, that of Owen. She describes the book as ‘Not a fragmented novel. A horizontal novel, narrated vertically’, which makes it sound like a whole load of postmodern twaddle until you link the structure with the type of book the narrator says she is working on and the context in which she does so:
The boy asks:
What’s you book about, Mama?
It’s a ghost story.
This scene is followed by one in which her friend tells her about the poet Ezra Pound seeing his friend Henri Gaudier-Brzeska on a train platform a few months after Gaudier-Brzeska’s death during the First World War. Pound immediately wrote a poem about it which he edited down to two lines ‘comparing faces in the crowd to petals on a dark bough’. Later in the novel, Owen explains a theory that he and his friend created suggesting that people have little deaths throughout their lives and how each time one occurs they leave a version of themselves to live on, sometimes in the form of a new person entirely. This idea is exploited throughout the book from her family who think there is a ghost in their house, to the narrator who tells us that she spends time ‘with Gilberto Owen’s ghost’ who eventually tries to take over the narration.
The sections of the novel that are most successful however, are those which describe family life. In a few sentences, Luiselli captures what it’s like to have young children:
You’ve got teeth like a baby shark, I say to the boy.
Do baby sharks have teeth, Mama?
I don’t know, I guess so.
But sharks are blind, and I’m not.
I know, I said teeth, not eyes.
Yeah, but still.
Come on, off to bed.
These scenes are often humorous and stop the book from a possible descent into literary pretentiousness. That isn’t to say that they don’t also add to the themes and structure of the novel but they provide a further dimension too.
Any Cop?: Yes. It’s clever, experimental and engaging, a rare combination, particularly in a debut.