This February, I had the sort of reading experience that fans of contemporary fiction treasure. I had just started a new story by an unfamiliar writer in Harper’s and, after the first paragraph, I stopped reading, stood and walked to my bookshelf. I knew this voice. I opened the Fall 2014 issue of The Paris Review and flipped to a story entitled “Long Distance.” Sure enough, both were written by the same author, Alejandro Zambra. I sat back down at the kitchen table and finished the Harper’s story, an absolute stunner entitled “Family Life.” The two short stories were perhaps the best I’d read this year.
It’s easy to recount this anecdote. It’s harder to articulate what compelled me to stand up, to recognize this narrative sensibility across the lit mag ether. Zambra’s prose is translated from Spanish, so it’s not his vernacular that caught my ear. Rather, it’s a narrative playfulness, a controlled equivocation that pushes against his stories’ structure.
Consider the opening of “Family Life”:
It’s not hot out, it’s not cold. A shy, sharp sun overcomes the clouds, and the sky looks, at times, truly clean, like the sky blue of a child’s drawing. Martín is in the last seat of the bus, listening to music, bobbing his head like the young folks do, but he’s not young anymore, not by a long shot: he’s forty years old, his hair fairly long, black and a little curly, his face extremely white—well, there’ll be time later to describe him.
Zambra’s calling card is a sentence that folds in upon itself. Reading him, I’m reminded of the illustrations of Sergio Aragonés, the brilliant Mad Magazine artist whose small, wobbly characters often parachute down the margins, or kick and push against individual panels, playfully calling attention to the formal limitations of a comic book page without disrupting the magic of the strip. Likewise, Zambra’s sentences comically dance around narrative convention without disrupting the immersive pull of the story. I can think of no one else who does this, and the effect is spellbinding.
But to say effect is, perhaps, to give the impression that Zambra’s style is contrived. Rather, his sentences are organic. They match both the tone and theme of his best stories, which chronicle the misadventures of adrift 40-something-year-old Chilean males who struggle to find footing in a world that forces their unwilling participation. Like these sentences, Zambra’s best characters often circle around and resist life’s conventions (a middle-class family, love, a career), but ultimately concede to their pleasures, even if they prove unsustainable.
We have, until now, been talking about Zambra at his best. My Documents, his new short story collection, is, unfortunately, uneven. At the end of the first story, he writes, “I think about closing this file and leaving it forever in the My Documents folder. But I’m going to publish it, I want to, even though it’s not finished, even though it’s impossible to finish.” The book does feel unfinished. I, for one, wish more thought had been put into the organization of this collection. My Documents is divided into four parts with little discernible thematic structure. The first section consists of the titular story, a loose semi-autobiographical account of the narrator’s relationship to computers. The second section is mostly told in the first person, although this pattern is broken by another computer story, “Memories of A Personal Computer,” which is told in the third person. The third section is formally experimental, with forays into memoir and poetic fragments. The fourth section, my favorite, is the most traditional, consisting of third-person, present-day narratives. The four sections of the book feel more like unrelated folders on a hard drive than thematic divisions that offer an overarching theme.
Zambra includes numerous references to soccer, computers, Chile and Pinochet that fail to exert a meaningful thematic push. “My first class was in March of 2000,” he writes in “Long Distance,” “a few days after Pinochet returned to Chile like he owned the place (I’m sorry for these reference points but there the ones that come to mind.)” Perhaps it’s my limitation as a reader for insisting upon political reflection when the author seems ambivalent, but Pinochet is mentioned so often, to such little effect, that he feels like a ghost that haunts the far corners of this collection without either scaring the characters or affecting the landscape. We know quite well that the dictator did both, so this literary ambivalence almost smacks of artistic disengagement and denial.
Zambra’s voice is so confident that it’s a bit surprising to see him self-consciously grapple with narrative form throughout the collection. Neither the ambiguous poetic story “I Smoked Very Well” nor the meta-labyrinthine “Artist’s Rendition” serve his playful, loping sentences. The traditional short stories like “Long Distance,” “Family Life” and “Thank You” allow his voice to drift without straying too far afield of plot.
Like his protagonists, Zambra harbors a love-hate relationship with convention and structure. When he allows these contradictory impulses to exist within the same story, his fiction is, quite simply, some of the best being produced today. Among all of his talents, however, it’s his sense of humor, implicit in the backtracking sentences, that unifies his voice and vision. He’s an erudite writer, but Zambra’s natural impulses often serve him best.