Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s beautiful third novel, is not as simple as it seems at first. With 139 pages, short chapter sections, and wide line breaks, the book looks and reads like a breeze. Listing its plot points would be boring and its themes—love, family, writing, the past—are almost predictable.
But this seemingly lackluster structure doesn’t matter because the book is filled with moments that made my heart sink déjà vu-inducing sinkholes sucking me back to my own childhood, my own adolescence. They left me too overwhelmed to go on reading. And it is in these moments that the magic of this book lies. Ways was not a great read because of what happened but because of the emotions it evoked.
As in his first book Bonsai, Zambra uses the same setup—the narrator is a writer living by himself, smoking cigarettes, sleeping with girls, trying to write a novel. While Ways visits the same points, it’s not to tell the same story. In life, one can sit around smoking cigarettes from day to day and yet the story, the ground situation, keeps changing.
Ways starts by focusing on the naiveté of youth, showing the narrator, as a nine-year-old, agreeing to spy on his neighbor because 12-year-old Claudia asked him too. But he’s still too young to even understand that this is a crush or even what a crush is. The spying leads the nine-year-old to trail a mysterious woman by bus. Here, Zambra nails the excitement of this first trip away from the parents’ house. The scene is loaded with nervous energy—the not knowing how to get home, but not really caring either. He allows this moment to play out to a surprising end. The nine-year-old starts pretending to be retarded so that the woman doesn’t catch on to him. But when he gets off the bus, she is there waiting, helping him to climb down. The woman then continues to help him trail her, by looking back and making sure he doesn’t get lost. In this scene, Zambra hooks the reader with a memory that we share and then tacks on a fantastical ending.
Another beautiful moment occurs during a family trip. The nine year old accidentally erases the chorus of a song on one of his family’s cassettes. He tries to cover up the crime by recording himself singing over the empty space. Zambra captures another childhood feeling: a small offense committed accidentally, followed by a disproportionate fear of punishment; just a child’s learning how to be in the world. Moments like these reach down into the reader’s soul and dig up memories long forgotten.
But children become grownups and grownups smoke and drink; grownups make mistakes and come to regret the things they’ve done and they try their best to live with it. Grownups hit the age their parents were when they had them, and they compare their own experience to the memory of their parents. They realize that their parents were never invincible and that they never really knew what they were doing. Then they compare that to what their parents are like now. During a dinner scene with his father, the narrator thinks to himself: “At what moment…did my father turn into this? Or was he always like this?” In the end, that taste of disgust and superiority is fleeting. Even though you can say words with what you think is true conviction and make love to another with what you think is true passion, you’re always fooling yourself at least a little bit. No one, in life, can be the hero who we read about in fiction. Zambra’s writing conveys the sense that much of life is spent acrossing the street with our eyes closed. Eventually, we all get a little bit fucked up.
Set in present-day Chile, Ways flashes back to the mid-80s, when Pinochet’s dictatorship was still in control. Zambra deals with this subject matter with an I-was-too-young-to-remember outlook. The narrator is part of a Chilean generation that is only now getting to the age their parents were when Pinochet was in charge.
In one of the more overtly political passages, Zambra writes: “While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner. While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes. While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.” Although this section ends on a serious, somber note, it is immediately undercut by what follows; a generous line break and the start of a new section: “Instead of writing, I spend the morning drinking beer and reading Madame Bovary.” It is a complex and subtle way to deal with the legacy of the dictatorship. Zambra knows that he cannot ignore the subject, but he also cannot do it justice. That story, that “novel,” was the job of his parents’ generation to write. The “we” of Zambra’s generation were just kids and, truth be told, they were barely aware of what was happening.
However, while the novel’s backdrop is political, its main focus is reflection and trying to understand one’s life. The narrator is a writer whose wife has left him. The book that he’s working on isn’t going well. Ways starts with him thinking back to that first crush, Claudia, and flows out from there; shifting temporally until Claudia comes along in the present. For a time, they make a new story together, all the while, looking back at what happened when they were kids and trying to understand it. Early on, the narrator says, “Sometimes I think I’m writing this book just to remember those conversations.” He seems to be looking into the past for a clue to why his marriage failed, for the formative seed of his failures with women. He uses the story that Claudia tells as a launching off point for his book, which is probably a book a lot like Ways, like two mirrors pointed at each other.
On the back cover, Nicole Krauss blurbed Zambra’s writing as “a phone call in the middle of the night from an old friend.” I felt the same and was gladdened to see that I was not alone. Reading Ways felt like listening to Zambra on the phone, trying to explain something to me. Not for my sake, but for his own. Trying to figure something out. Trying to look closer, understand the meaning of a pattern he’s just noticed. I swear that I felt this way long before I got to the end, where Zambra writes: “Today my friend Pablo called me so he could read me this phrase he found in a book by Tim O’Brien: ‘What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end.’ I kept thinking about that and stayed awake all night.” It is these “odd little fragments,” the little moments that Zambra captures, that lead the reader down emotional pathways he’d forgotten and that make this novel great.