There are apparitions everywhere—ghost traces, adumbrations, remnants and revenants of what has been and will be lost. You can see them on the sidewalk or outside the subway station, flipping through some tattered paperback in a poorly lit nook. These creatures are our memories, reflections, and future selves. Valeria Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, is a study of the apparitions we encounter every day, how we dissolve into their world and they quietly enter ours, leaving long shadows on the steps of the station.
“What few people understand is that you leave one life to start another,” Luiselli writes, as if to explain the structure of her book—with its three fragmentary, first-person narratives that disintegrate into one other: A mother of two living in Mexico City writes a novel that’s fractions fact and fiction; a young female translator at a small press in Harlem convinces her boss to publish the fabricated translations of an obscure Mexican poet; and the poet himself, Gilberto Owen, a real person who lived in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, gallivants about town and occasionally insults Federico García Lorca. Each voice speaks for anywhere from a sentence to three pages before the next one takes over in this “series of broken thoughts.” At one point, the unnamed translator—who is a younger version of the mother and also a character in the mother’s novel—talks about her acts of forgery to an old man who asks: “So what does it matter if he [Gilberto Owen] never met Lorca or saw Duke Ellington play?” “It doesn’t, I’m just saying he could have,” the translator says. “Exactly,” replies the old man, “and that’s what matters.”
The mother and her son play hide-and-seek in their large dilapidated house, which is haunted by a ghost her son invented. Gilberto Owen jokes about his numerous deaths, tries to “remember the future,” and eats chocolate ice cream at 10 a.m. The translator tells her boss tall tales about what could’ve happened in Owen’s life, while the mother tells her husband she’s writing “the book of Gilberto Owen’s ghost.” These are not complete stories but “short breaths,” shards of thought and experience balanced on the page by significant amounts of white space—empty space where the breaths overlap, the experiences intersect.
A dead potted plant in which the translator is collecting her notes about Gilberto Owen reappears in her later life as a mother; this dead plant was found on the roof of an old building where Owen once lived, and although there’s no way it’s the same plant he owned in his sparsely decorated apartment in 1928, the finding of it becomes “some kind of signal, the signal I’d been waiting for.” This signal marks a turn in the novel, when the translator begins “to live as if inhabited by another possible life that wasn’t mine, but which simply by the use of imagination, I could give myself up to completely.” So opens an aperture for apparitions.
If this sounds unnervingly surreal, it is. Faces in the Crowd is a haunted book—the stories the characters tell are like the pieces of a broken mirror we might try to treat as a puzzle, something manageable that can be reassembled, but the pieces never fit. There are too many duplicates and holes, too much white space on the page. Unlike other novels that have a similar fragmentary or experimental structure, this novel never gets bogged down by unnecessary opaqueness or frivolous difficulty. There’s a hardened clarity to Luiselli’s prose, which makes reading each of her sentences a dark, quiet pleasure. It’s almost always clear who’s talking, even when the voices overlap like the paths of three cats all creaking through the same ruined house, even when “the fiber of fiction begins to modify reality and not vice versa, as it should be.” This is not a ghost story but a conversation about what we might call our other lives and other deaths.
Gilberto Owen and the mother who is writing a novel about him are bound together by artists’ dreams—to escape the crush of the quotidian, create uncompromising works of art, and lead the lives they otherwise could have. Yet they are tied down by the everyday exhaustions of parenthood and work. When they look back on their own lives, they do not see a singular, coherent story. What they see are bits and pieces, fragments and shards and thousands of little deaths. “I once read somewhere that personality is a continuous sequence of successful gestures,” the mother tells us about Gilberto Owen. “But the opposite was true of the man who appeared in the portrait: the fissures and discontinuities were obvious.” She could be writing her autobiography here—and to some degree she is.
Faces in the Crowd is the greatest of all things: a novel meant to be reread. It’s not until the latter half of the book, once the complexities of the structure are fully apparent, that the mystery Luiselli has crafted gains exponential, existential force, which we can then trace to very first pages. While there are a few early anecdotes, such as the translator’s involvement with a police detective, that don’t really fit into this complex structure, and thus could have been edited out, almost all the fragments take on greater meaning the more we learn about Gilberto Owen, the mother and her novel, and their many ghosts. The intrigue increases upon rereading—upon noticing the translator’s “gray tights” compared to Gilberto Owen’s “gray bathrobe” and seeing similar relationships shapeshift across the three narratives—as the apparitions reemerge and we delineate the many shades of existence that exist in the shadow realm between life and death. Yet we can never quite name the mystery that fills the white spaces and grows by each turning of the page.
“All novels lack something or someone,” the mother tells us about her own writing. “In this novel there’s no one. No one except a ghost that I used to see sometime in the subway.” After reading Faces in the Crowd, you may notice such ghosts too, here and there, on your way home from work or after a long night out when dawn is finally closing in. Apparitions abound. Start a conversation with them. They’ll answer back.