Thursday, March 17, 2011

Your Face Tomorrow

I finished the final volume of Javier Marías' Your Face Tomorrow over the weekend. I'm definitely not done thinking about it, but I might venture a few tentative thoughts.

The structure of this three-volume,1200+ page work is one of the most intriguing things about it. I'd like to see somebody chart the plot of YFT, to show how frequently the action jumps backward in time only to return to the main story, the whole of which is being related after the fact by the narrator/protagonist. [The chart probably wouldn't need to be as complicated and this or this. Maybe it would look something like this.] This narrator, Jacques Deza, comments several times on how a few of the main characters, himself included, share the ability to never "lose the thread", no matter how many tangents they follow or parentheses they insert into a conversation. And this is exactly what Marías does. Although the timeline of the main story may only advance by a matter of minutes in hundreds of pages, as happens in the second volume, Marías/Deza never lets go of the thread, always finding his way back from the innumerable digressions, asides, speculations, backfills, and recollections within recollections. In retrospect, it becomes clear that the digressions are really just as much part of the story, just as important, as the main thread. Though the material is much different, the way that stories lead to other stories, or memories to other memories, in YFT is not unlike the book-within-a-book in Michal Ajvaz's The Golden Age (which I discussed here), with the key difference that Ajvaz's narrator does lose the thread as he's pulled deeper and deeper into "the Book".  

The pace of YFT's main story seems to pick up a bit in the third (and longest) volume, as Marías starts to pay off on a lot of things he'd set up much earlier - hints, allusions, questions, obsessively repeated words or quotations of initially unclear import. Still, the bare facts of the plot could have been related in conventional novelistic fashion in a matter of a few hundred pages, even taken at a leisurely pace, pausing frequently to describe rooms and sunsets. So what does Marías need three volumes for? I wouldn't call YFT an experimental novel. Structurally, Marías is not doing anything more radical than Proust (and certainly less radical than Sterne). He does, however, find a way of representing his narrator's consciousness, his internal monologue, that may not be new but certainly is distinctive and effective. The voice and storytelling method Marías has fashioned is even, to indulge in a book jacket blurb cliche, compulsively readable despite the sheer length that results from this approach. If you can get on Marías' wavelength in the first book, you'll be with him for the long haul, all the way to the end of his epic London-Madrid sort-of-spy story.

With YFT, Marías makes a case for the novel's continued relevance as a form uniquely suited to shed light on the mysteries of human consciousness and human behavior. I'm pretty sure he's also given us some deep insights on the perennial (and interrelated) subjects of history, memory, war, and violence, but these (especially the last two) are the aspects of the book that I feel I'm still unpacking, and writing about them would probably merit a whole separate (and much longer) post.

[After finishing this post, I've started working my way through the series on YFT at Conversational Reading, which I'd specifically avoided - along with almost all reviews - until I finished the book.]

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