I haven’t consciously sought them out, but I’ve read a number of books that mess around with the way text looks on the page, use a lot of white space, or use images and text in interesting ways. I like this! (Thinking of the creative use of images, I might read W.G. Sebald’s Emigrants soon to prepare for this event with Elisa Gabbert. I should keep a good thing going. Perhaps you will join me?)
Nancy by Bruno Lloret, translated by Ellen Jones (Two Lines Press) is the most unusual of all these unusual books. The very first page after the epigraph looks like this:
And a typical page looks like this:
What are all those Xs doing there? Lloret explains in an introductory letter to the reader that it’s partly a matter of capturing a certain rhythm (from what I understand, this piece is included in the galley, which I read, but not the final version. You can read the whole thing here):
The text relies neither on constant, fluid sentences, nor on transparent, cinematic language, and at first I used a dash to separate sentences rather than the usual punctuation (full stop, comma, colon, and so on). Those standard symbols didn’t give Nancy the right rhythm, and I wanted a spoken, fluent, intermittent transcription of her voice. In Spanish, angle quotation marks (<>) are often used, and as I worked I started to see Xs emerge in between sentences framed as quotes (><). It was visually interesting, since in separating sentences, these marks added a sort of visual enigma, an invitation to interpret what is happening on the page. Then the X started, almost on its own, to gather other functions than rhythm — silences, white noise, gaps, breathing — as if the world depicted in the novel emerged from the many meanings of this ubiquitous sign.
I didn’t consciously think of those Xs as silences, white noise, gaps, or breathing, but I felt those things as I read. It didn’t take any effort to get used to this style or to adjust to it; it just made intuitive sense. I found myself pausing for lengths of time roughly in proportion to how many Xs there were between passages of text and thinking of the Xs as marking off different sections of text, complete in themselves but connected to the ones around them. Sometimes those Xs play a practical role of separating lines of dialogue, but mostly they exist as pauses between thought or action.
They are so much more versatile than traditional punctuation. Individual Xs as Lloret uses them can sometimes be replaced by a period or dash, but very often he piles Xs next to each other, on top of each other, and in patterns in ways we never see traditional punctuation. Yes, he could pile periods or commas next to and on top of each other or lengthen dashes to multiple lines long, but the newness of the Xs allows him to break away from our expectations of what punctuation should be. The Xs have their origins in Spanish angle quotation marks, but in the novel itself, those angles have drifted so far away from that purpose that they are entirely new.
I’m a relatively slow reader and one who likes to pause a lot to let my mind wander, and I wonder if this book is particularly well-suited to that kind of reading. I don’t know. Nancy is a novel with the trappings of novels — characters, action, setting — but it reads almost like poetry where the beginnings and ends of lines matter and the lines create their own rhythm.
The Xs are not the only unusual structural element: there are a few photographs and footnotes scattered throughout. As with Bina (which I wrote about last week), the footnotes seem superfluous; they could easily be incorporated into the main text — there aren’t even that many of them — but their presence seems natural. The whole novel is messy on the level of layout, so why not throw some footnotes in? They create another opportunity to pause as our eye jumps around on the page, taking it in as an image in and of itself. As for the photographs, they are mysterious and haunting. We learn that most of them are X-ray images, so they make sense and fit the story, but they still carry an other-worldly feeling into an already strange text.
Early on, we learn that Nancy is on her deathbed suffering from cancer. She is looking back at her life, recounting some of its most significant scenes. She grew up in poverty in Chile. Her mother struggled with addiction and left her family when Nancy was young. Her brother escaped as soon as he could. Her father, bereft by these losses, falls under the sway of Mormon missionaries. The book’s chapters open with verses from the Bible or the Book of Mormon, showing how intertwined people’s lives are with religious belief, but Nancy remains skeptical: to her it seems fraudulent and a useless form of escapism.
Her life has been hard. As the book opens, we see her running away from home, fleeing life with her father. She is smuggled into Bolivia where she meets a man she ends up marrying (at a very young age), and they move back to Chile, but the marriage is unhappy and her husband dies in a bizarre accident. She has some happy moments, but they are overshadowed by family insecurity and predatory men. It’s unclear how old she is as she lies on her deathbed, but it’s possible that the cancer struck early and she is dying young.
Nancy, as the first person narrator, tells her story in a rambling fashion, moving around in time as a dying person thinking about the past would do. The details are sometimes tricky to piece together, but a picture of poverty, neglect, and environmental devastation emerges. And as we read, the Xs take on new meanings: Nancy’s days are being X’ed out, her life is disappearing, her voice, never much listened to during her best days, will soon be entirely gone. It’s a sad story, and Lloret has found a remarkable way to tell it.
Don’t Forget About
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit: (Penguin, 2001): I read Wanderlust at least 12 years ago (before I started keeping track) and was utterly enthralled. It was one of the books that shaped my love of the kind of nonfiction that is hard to classify. Yes, this book has “history” in the subtitle, but it also touches on memoir, sociology, political science, criticism, literature, and philosophy. I loved the book’s range, how it looks at walking in so many different ways, from marches to pilgrimages to walkathons, from famous walkers in literature to how gender impacts our ability to walk. Solnit is a beautiful writer, and this older work of hers is well worth returning to.
Publishing This Week
New (mostly) small-press books out this week that I (mostly) haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. Quotations from the publisher:
To Write As If Already Dead by Kate Zambreno (Columbia University Press): I read and loved this one. I plan on rereading it to write about it here. It’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction, in part about Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, her attempts to write about it, her life while writing about it, and a lot more.
Slipping by Mohamed Kheir, translated by Robin Moger (Two Lines Press): “A struggling journalist named Seif is introduced to a former exile with an encyclopedic knowledge of Egypt's obscure, magical places. Together, as explorer and guide, they step into the fragmented, elusive world the Arab Spring left behind.”
The Fugitives by Jesse McCarthy (Melville House): a novel about a young Black American man raised in France and living in New York City, trying to figure out his future.
Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi (Riverhead): “Through candid, intimate correspondence with friends, lovers, and family, Emezi traces the unfolding of a self and the unforgettable journey of a creative spirit stepping into power in the human world.”
New on the TBR
New books acquired:
Lecture by Mary Cappello (Transit Books, 2020): this book is part of Transit Books’s Undelivered Lectures series. I loved Namwali Serpell’s book Stranger Faces and so I want to keep reading in the series.
Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own, quotations from the publisher):
At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020): this novel just won the International Booker Prize: “Alfa Ndiaye is a Senegalese man who, never before having left his village, finds himself fighting as a so-called "Chocolat" soldier with the French army during World War I.”
How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (Little Brown and Company, 2021): “Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks--those that are honest about the past and those that are not--that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation's collective history, and ourselves.”
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Biblioasis, 2021): nonfiction that combines memoir and literary history. Ní Ghríofa writes about her obsession with an eighteenth-century Irish poem and its author, as well as about her experiences as a mother, writer, and researcher.
The Cormac Report
Congratulations are due to Cormac and my husband Rick, who finished reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy this week — Rick for reading the whole thing out loud, and Cormac for listening to it more or less attentively. It’s a big accomplishment! I’ll admit that while I was there for most of the reading, I hardly listened to any of it. It has been a nice opportunity to let my mind wander for awhile. Sorry Tolkien! Now they are on to The Silmarillion, which may be a bad idea — I’ve heard it’s boring — but Cormac is really into it, at least for now, so we’ll see how it goes. Wish them luck!
Have a good week everyone!