REVIEW: Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

“Beware! If you play at ghosts, you become one,” warns the epigraph, attributed to the Kabbalah, that begins Valeria Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd. A reader takes such a warning as a portent of otherworldly magic, or at least a transformative encounter with real death. What follows instead is a dense play of texts that interrupt and reflect each other, illuminating the empty spaces between them.

Faces in the Crowd is the story of a married woman with one child and pregnant with a second. She begins to novelize her younger life as a reader and translator for a publisher of forgotten foreign authors. In this fictionalization of her younger life, the narrator and protagonist of Faces in the Crowd becomes obsessed with a poet named Gilberto Owen, whose work she discovers and attempts to publish. As she immerses herself in her research and her imagination of Owen’s life and work, she gradually creates a fictional account of both in Owen’s voice. Halfway through Faces in the Crowd, this third fiction takes over the novel, and the original narrator and protagonist returns in the imagination of Owen.

In vignettes that succeed rapidly and move freely between the novel’s many spatial and temporal zones, the different first-person narrators ruminate through and around paradoxical notions of fiction, space and death. Their ruminations echo and respond to each other. Ghosts recur, but not quite as a conventional theme or symbol. Questions pertaining to who is alive and who is dead, what is real and what is imagined, and whether it is the real or the imagined that is alive or dead, are always present, and the answers are either absent or multiple and conflicting.

At the beginning of the novel, when the original narrator begins to fictionalize her past, she tells the reader “All that has survived from that period are the echoes of certain conversations, a handful of recurrent ideas, poems I liked and read over and over until I knew them by heart. Everything else is a later elaboration. It’s not possible for my memories of that life to have more substance. They are scaffolding, structures, empty houses.” There are clues here that suggest a larger design or project of the novel. Memory, either in a person’s mind or in print that documents the past, is incomplete. Remembrance or recreation in the present, of a dead person or a past self, involves a “later elaboration,” an imagination that collaborates with the memory to fill in the empty spaces there.

This collaboration, for Luiselli and for her characters, is the process that defines fiction writing. In another early fragment, the narrator admits “I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.” Faces in the Crowd is a scaffolding that bounds the empty spaces into which the writer and the reader of the novel can insert their imagination. Be it a crawlspace in the apartment of one of the characters, or a void that separates two of the texts of which it is made, it is empty space that allows this novel to breathe with possibility, and that sustains the attention, if not the amazement, of the reader and the writer.

Toward the end of the novel, Owen becomes increasingly obsessed with the possibility of his disintegrating and becoming a ghost, and with the young Mexican woman who may be writing the novel in which he begins to imagine a novel about her. At this point, this woman who began the novel by writing about her past returns to the present, and by rules that continue to change, she plays a number of games of hide and seek with her son. Here, in these spaces between the vignettes that come at the end of Owen’s story, the narrator, the author, and the reader of the novel are all hiding, because it is here in these spaces that open at the end of the novel that the writing of fiction really begins.

Faces in the Crowd

by Valeria Luiselli

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