25 Points: Ways of Going Home

Posted by @ 1:09 pm on March 14th, 2013

woghWays of Going Home
by Alejandro Zambra
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
160 pages / $23.00 buy from Powell’s or Amazon








1. Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra is one of my favorite novels.

2. It’s the kind of novel you read on a Sunday morning and by late Sunday afternoon you find yourself wandering around a park, looking at the grass, noticing sadly how birds do things, thinking about people you don’t talk to anymore.

3. Nicole Krauss’ blurb for Ways of Going Home: “I read all of Alejandro Zambra’s novels back-to-back because they were such good company. His books are like a phone call in the middle of the night from an old friend, and afterward, I missed the charming and funny voice on the other end, with its strange and beautiful stories.”

4. Despite the fact that I think people have made fun of Nicole Krauss’ blurbs, this is a good summary on the effects of reading Zambra: the phantom voice that you’re immediately drawn to, that hovers over things in its aftermath, whose touch is light but which leaves you with escalofríos,

5. I was really excited for this book, though I think I was a little turned off by the title. Or at least concerned.

6. The title in Spanish is Formas de volver a casa. It makes me think of topological patterns, endless and multiplying permutations to get at the same thing. It makes me think of mazes and dizziness and graphs. The title in English, Way of Going Home, makes me think of Oprah, or a book that Oprah would read on vacation somewhere.

7. Which isn’t to say that the translation by Megan McDowell is bad. It’s very good, in fact, like the last Zambra book she translated, The Secret Lives of Trees.

8. Zambra is a cozy author. You feel cozy in the midst of his prose. His sentences seem simple and effortless; you nestle easily. Other cozy authors I can think of: Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, Michel Houellebecq.

9. It’s been at least two weeks since I’ve read this book and I can’t really decide if I liked it or not.

10. Chad Post definitely didn’t like it. While I agree with some of the points in his review, I don’t appreciate his tone, which I find to be condescending.

11. Example (Post is quoting a section of the novel):

“Claudia’s first memory of the stadium is also happy. In 1977 it was announced that Chespirito, the Mexican comedian, would bring the entire cast of his show to perform at the National Stadium. Claudia was four years old then; she watched Chespirito’s show and she liked it a lot.

Her parents refused to take her at first, but finally they gave in. The four of them went, and Claudia and Ximena had a great time. Many years later Claudia found out that for her parents that day had been torture. They had spent every moment thinking how absurd it was to see the stadium filled with laughing people. Throughout the entire show they had thought only, obsessively, about the dead.

This is a pretty trite set-piece, and one that comes off as über-manipulative and totally unbelievable. (I distrust all writing that hinges on memories of a child, since most of these memories are way more specific than any person would actually have.) It’s the sort of manipulative sequence you’d find in story from a mediocre creative writer. (See how it contrasts the naive happiness of the child with the sullen awareness of the parents? And how parents sacrifice for their children? Do you see what I did there?)”

12. Unlike Post, I don’t find the set-piece to be so trite. The idea of a stadium being used as a place of torture one day and the setting for a comedy act the next seems bizarre and terrifying.

13. I remember reading somewhere that one of the Pinochet-era methods of torture was to put live rats up women’s vaginas. Can you imagine that happening in the same space where Leno delivers his nightly monologue, a few hours before making his shitty jokes?

14. Which brings me to the political content of the book, which aside from a few moments (like the one mentioned above) is not so important to the story. Part of the novel deals with Pinochet-era Chile and how the narrator grew up in the weird world of a dictatorship. Pinochet factors in as an aspect of his reminiscence. It’s an interesting narrative setting to situate the characters’ childhoods in that it complicates the veneer of estrangement and nostalgia, but it doesn’t amount to anything beyond that. It’s as important as whether the novel is narrated in a living room or a park or the bathroom. Which in some ways is very important, in some ways not.

15. I feel like most reviewers will talk about the book as a meditation on Pinochet-era Chile, but I don’t really think it’s about that at all.

16. It’s a book, like all of Zambra’s books, about relationships and ways of accessing those relationships through writing, through thinking, through memory.

17. In the opening section of the novel:

“She was twelve and I was nine, so our friendship was impossible. But we were friends, or something like it. We talked a lot. Sometimes I think I’m writing this book just to remember those conversations.”

18. A little set-up: the novel is divided between the story of the writer’s childhood, and the writer’s own story, that is, the writer who’s writing the childhood section of the book. Like all of Zambra’s books, it plays with ideas “about” writing; about accessing something intimate from the distance incurred by writing, which is always ontologically removed, always a mediation between the thing and the memory of the thing, always in transit, unfixed, etc. It’s a typical metafictional-postmodern-y conceit but Zambra’s touch makes all the difference.

19. Something that Post remarks on that I feel is astute: this is Zambra’s first book in the first person. Post suggests that third person narrative fits Zambra’s brand of metafictional story-telling a little better. I agree. Zambra’s voice is most effective when it comes from above.

20. I find Zambra’s writing to be an indirect response to the common complaint waged against writers of metafictional prose: too much distance, too much smirking, not enough human. Donald Barthelme, circa 1981, in the Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: What’s your greatest weakness as a writer?

BARTHELME: That I don’t offer enough emotion. That’s one of the things people come to fiction for, and they’re not wrong. I mean emotion of the better class, hard to come by. […] I particularly prize, but can’t often produce, a kind of low-key emotional touch that speaks volumes.

21. Zambra’s greatest strength as a writer is his ability to put all of a text’s artifices and contrivances of memory and imagination on the surface, and use this approach as a way to slowly pull the reader into the kind of low-key emotional touch that Barthelme mentions above. He doesn’t ever allow the archness to run away with what’s important. If anything he uses the distance to his advantage.

22. Bonsai begins by telling you that at the end she dies, he lives, etc. But he’s telling the reader; the characters don’t know it yet. At the end of the novel, he finds out. In the last scene he takes a cab home from work. When he gets in the cab he gives the driver his day’s earnings and tells the guy behind the wheel to drive for as long as he can pay for, anywhere, in any direction, it doesn’t matter. It’s the kind of ending that gives you a little pain in your chest, and it’s something that I never experienced reading Ways of Going Home.

23. Though I would consider this to be Zambra’s most underwhelming novel, there are still some very nice nuggets to be found:

“We talk about my novel, but also about the novel Diego published recently and that I read a few weeks before. I tell him I liked it; I try to explain why I liked it. I think of one scene in particular. The protagonist travels to Buenos Aires with this father and asks him for a book. The father buys it for him and, to show his approval, he opens it as says, ‘It’s sturdy.'”

“I speak in the past tense of Eme. It’s sad and easy: she isn’t here anymore. But I should also learn to speak in the past tense about myself.”

“She asked me later, half-joking, if the characters stay together for the rest of their lives. I couldn’t avoid a flicker of annoyance. I answer no: they see each other again as adults and they get involved for a few weeks, maybe months, but in no way do they stay together. I told her it couldn’t be like that, it’s never like that.

‘It’s never like that in good novels, but in bad novels anything is possible,’ said Eme as she tied up her hair nervously, flirtatiously.”

“I like that my characters don’t have last names. It’s a relief.”

24. Despite these, it never came together for me. Which is to say that maybe I’ve decided that I don’t like the book, but that I don’t dislike it. I see it as a formal experiment on Zambra’s part, something that he maybe felt he needed to do. Part of the fun of being a fan of an author’s oeuvre is the possibility of the interesting failure: as an isolated text, you might not care about Novel X. But in the scheme of Novelist’s career, Novel X, a book that is either underwhelming, or maybe even bad, or just unmemorable, is rendered interesting. It becomes, as a reader of Novelist, something worthwhile, something worth thinking about, something that belongs in a constellation of other works. I remember a conversation with a friend I had recently: my friend suggested that if he didn’t know that P.T. Anderson had directed The Master, he probably would have thought it was bad and pretentious. To which I said that maybe the interesting thing about the movie isn’t the movie itself, but the fact that P.T. Anderson made it.

25. I’m excited to read what Zambra produces next. He’s one of the few writers whom I feel is able to marry an attitude in writing that is metaficitonal and playful but emotionally affecting. Unlike most metafictional/typical postmodernist writers, I don’t think Zambra is terribly interested in writing games, in mind-puzzles, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, etc. I think he’s after something a little more romantic, personal, maybe even confessional. Despite my disappointment, I think Zambra’s approach in this book still manages to accomplish that, to some degree. Toward the end of Ways of Going Home, the narrator quotes Family Saying, by Natalia Ginzburg: “The places, events and people in this book are all real. I have invented nothing. Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy everything thus invented.”

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