The best revolutions turn an issue into a non-issue. The Summer of Love made a non-issue out of marijuana. The gay rights movement is making a non-issue out of who you choose to marry. Duchamp and Warhol and Gaga made non-issues out of representation, originality, and talent, respectively. The best revolutions are built on a shrug. They take what everyone else is anxious about and say: who cares.
Maybe that’s why Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli feels revolutionary. If you had to label it, you would call it a fictional text by a young Mexican-American woman about how identities get obscured and erased and replaced—especially the identities of women, writers, and immigrants. The book is about people becoming ghosts, and ghosts becoming people.
In Mexico City, a married woman who never leaves her house is writing a novel about her wild, younger years, in New York City, when she worked as a translator of Spanish literature. In that novel, the woman’s younger self gets caught up in an ill-advised scheme to fabricate the details of a dead Mexican poet’s life, so as to make his story appealing and worthy of publication. And the Mexican poet, decades earlier, leads the life that the translator is fictionalizing for him, while prefiguring many of the anxieties and motifs that haunt his translator. Across time and unreality, the poet and his translator see visions of each other on the New York City subway—the “faces in the crowd” of Ezra Pound’s famous poem—as their lives slowly dissolve into each other, and then, perhaps, into nothing.
But who cares, right? Why should we be so uptight about defining the plot, anyway? Faces in the Crowd is not uptight about anything. Luiselli does not distinguish among the voices of the novelist, her younger self, and the dead Mexican poet—you have to decipher who’s talking from context. She does not distinguish between what’s real and what’s fictional—I think the dead Mexican poet is real, but he seems fake; the husband who reads the novelist’s work over her shoulder is fake, but he seems like the realest person in the book. To all appearances Luiselli genuinely does not give a fuck about such things. She simply gathers a bundle of loose ends.
That’s the way literary recognition works, at least to a certain degree. It’s all a matter of rumor, a rumor that multiplies like a virus until it becomes a collective affinity.
Faces in the Crowd reminds me of Leaving the Atocha Station, another unapologetically literary novel about Spanish translation and unstable identities. It also reminds me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, whose protagonist goes deeper into his own mind until his imaginary house collapses. But in its supremely casual and confident treatment of Self and Other, of Fact and Fiction—the way it makes non-issues out of both—Faces in the Crowd is something new, something revolutionary.
– Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Curator of the Critical Hit Awards at Electric Literature.