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Davis: ‘Loquela’ and the state of the literary novel

Like any year since, well, whenever Anna Karenina was published, the literary novel in 2015, according to the literary journalists, was dominated by domestic-realist tragicomic family dramas where characters have quiet epiphanies and no character is fully understood until we have capsule biographies of their entire family. In these perpetual-emotion machines, one character is always successful but unhappy, another is unsuccessful and unhappy, and a happy character dies to show that life is unhappy. Books shorter than 500 pages can be safely ignored — brevity, as we all know, being frivolous and insufficiently ambitious for readers and authors both. The plots tell the universal through the particular, particularly through middle-class urban American familial ennui, the microcosm through which the entire universe is visible. The prose style is “dazzling,” as the blurbs always put it, even though nobody’s quite sure what it means.

These are the rules for The Proper Novel — unfortunately, nobody told Carlos Labbé before he started writing Loquela. Maybe it’s because he’s still young and lives in Chile, or perhaps it’s because he’s being enabled by Open Letter, a press committed to the lunacy that foreign literature by living writers should be published in the United States. Fools, all of them. As a short book that bypasses Bestsellerese and family melodrama in favor of risky and unmarketable things like critical theory or fun, I cannot in good faith call Loquela a Proper Novel. I am, however, prepared to call it an interesting novel, one that renders homage to the postmodern books-within-books shenanigans of Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, and Andrei Bitov while staking new territory of its own.    

Granted, one of this book’s three sections is called “The Novel,” but this refers to content, not form: these short chapters describe a college student named Carlos, his relationship with his girlfriend Elisa, and his writing a novel about an albino woman murdered by an obsessive stalker. In alternating order between these chapters, we read about The Recipient and The Sender. The former is another young writer in college, unlucky in love and obsessed with an albino classmate, and whose diary entries form the basis of his novel. The Sender is an albino woman, also a writer, and her chapters are excerpts from a long letter addressed to a young author who is dangerously obsessed with her. The novel by the Recipient might be the story of Carlos and his novel; the novel by Carlos could be the story of the Recipient writing his book. Both characters seem to have The Sender’s letter, or some version of it.

Confused? It’s deliberate. The plot of Loquela is in revolt against reason. If the traditional novel’s pleasure lies in its ability to unite experiences with events and provide tidy causal chains between them to explain how and why things happen, Loquela goes in the opposite direction, chasing chaos. The recursive-triptych structure used by Labbé takes the standard model of causality and twists it until effects become their own cause. It’s weird, all right, but when you take Labbé’s themes into account — the tricky shading between symbolic and physical in matters of violence or sexual desire—recursive paradox starts looking like your best bet.  

The structure of the novel demands close reading, but the text has simpler pleasures, too. On the level of sentences and paragraphs, Loquela is full of clever observation and dry humor. It’s devious work for the translator, and credit is due to Will Vanderhyden for anglicizing Labbé’s nutty syntax, as in passages like this, where the narrator describes the tedium of the lecture hall. In his diary, the Recipient writes:

We’re in our final year of studying literature and in one way or another we’ve made up our minds to forget that we don’t want to be here. The book was actually entertaining, like TV, parties, the cinema, the photocopies had a distinct smell, we can simulate an analysis of the mythical structure of One Hundred Years of Solitude, for two hours we drink down lessons of generative linguistics with our coffee, the rest of the day we live!

After so many flattened clauses, where Marquez and photocopy odors, coffee and criticism hold equal insignificance before the evening’s pursuit of sex and cinema, helpfully distinguished by that final punctuation. Labbé maintains that deadpan tone throughout, bouncing between lecture doldrums and metaphysical hijinks, mixing hook-ups, break-ups, dead poets, imaginary cities, and outrageous manifestos, capturing a particular way of seeing and thinking familiar to literary types from Santiago to Stockholm and all points between.

About that word, loquela: it’s Latin, meaning “speech.” In medieval law, it was the statement of wrongdoing given in court. Ignatius de Loyola, in the novel’s first epigraph, calls loquela “the music of the heavens.” Roland Barthes, in the second epigraph, says it “designates the flux of language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequences of an action,” the harfmul and addictive pleasure of putting grievance into words. Labbé uses all of these meanings, and many more for all I know. Language, law, paradise, pain: Loquela!  

Coming in at a slim 200 pages, I had to read Loquela twice to get a grip on it. The interpretive effort, for those who dig doing their lit-crit homework, is worth it. I’ve read “ambitious” American novels that don’t say half as much in twice as many pages. Maybe it’s that damned “dazzling” prose.

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