The narrator writes a novel based on her years as a translator in NY City. She writes that her younger self became obsessed with the work of early twentieth century poet Gilberto Owen, especially with the brief time Owen lived in NY City.
There is a metafictional element to this multilayered story. The woman writing the story within the novel is married with two kids. In brief chapters she comments on her present life and on the process of writing the novel. Occasionally she writes of her husband interrupting her to object to a distortion of the facts. She explains to him that this is a novel therefore it need not be strictly factual. Thus, she also becomes an unreliable narrator.
The fiction of ‘Faces in the Crowd’ multiplies several times and comments on its own fictionality. First there is Valeria Luiselli who writes a novel, then the novel’s narrator, a fictional character writing of her youth in NY City, and admitting to fictionalizing this, in the larger sense, already fictional narrative. Then within that framework, the young translator partly invents the story of Gilberto Owen, who unlike the others (excepting Luiselli) was a real person. In later chapters, Owen becomes the narrator, telling his own story, but in doing so this fictionalized Owen tells a semi fiction account of his own life. Gradually these layers of fiction and reality and time and distance converge.
Magic Realism is a tradition amoung Latin American writers. They invented it, and they are the best at it. I’ve been a fan of MR since reading Alejo Carpentier, Italo Calvino, and Borges. Miss Luiselli is also very good, as is perhaps expected.
To give one example, both the translator and Owen see each other in the subway, first in passing cars, then on the platform, but they never speak. Like ghosts or visions, both living in the same city but decades apart.
The novel seems a bit down on Gilberto Owen. He was a successful journalist, poet, and diplomat who may have achieved greater fame had he not died young.
These Owen sections are not the novel’s main strength. The story of the translator and her friends is the first and far more interesting section of the book. The best part of the Owen chapters is that even the minor characters are people who existed in real life, and all lived in NY City at the same time as Owen, though their interactions are all invented by the narrator and of course on another level by Luiselli. As the narrator states, that they could have easily met one another is more important (to a story teller) than if they actually did so.
Actually, once one realizes that these characters are based on real people, the Owen sections gain more interest, and in fact Luiselli deserves credit for her research and her cleverness in inventing a plausible social circle for these people to inhabit. None of this may have happened, but it all could have happened.
Luiselli has a terrific ability to suggest a long stretch of dialogue with just a few lines. She creates a sense of relationship between characters with a casual build up of brief moments. In a series of sections, chapters, paragraphs, constructed like small poems, or prose poems, she creates the lives and adventures of the translator and all her friends and aquaintances,
The light touch of Magic Realism and Metafiction in an otherwise realist manner works very well. But in the final sections the Magic becomes too heavy handed whilst the Realism vanishes, and the novel suffers as a result. I found myself missing the earlier sections before I had finished reading the novel.
I would have liked to see the translator’s story continue for the length of the novel. And to a slightly lesser extent I would like to see what Luiselli could do with a full length semi-fictional treatment of Owen’s life in NY City. But I know that neither will happen.