If you’ve been keeping up (or, like me, struggling to keep up) with the Big Other Book Club thus far, you’ve at least dipped into Tom McCarthy’s C and a Mary Caponegro story or two. And in so doing, you’ve experienced some delectable, rich, intricately-knotted sentences. McCarthy’s writing felt mechanical at times to me, or rather it erased the line between the mechanical and the so-called organic in amazing ways, making the mechanistic seem gorgeous. From Carrefax near the opening:
Our job here is to restore to the deaf child the function of his pipes and all their stops: the larynx with its valve; the timbre-moulding pharnyx; the pillar-supported palate, which, depressed, hangs like a veil before the nares; and so on.
Similarly, Caponegro’s sentences were marvels, architectural wonders that we could walk through,
conforming to no law with which I am acquainted: a sort of wood box slightly askew; no saltbox, neither hat nor shoe, a leaning tower without a Pisa’s dignity, haphazard, squat, and deep within, a strange conglomerate of spaces…
In contrast, when we plunge into Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, we are thrown immediately into the midst of a conversation:
—Is Mita’s furniture nice?
—Mom feels terrible Mita can’t take advantage of the house, now we’ve got all the modern conveniences, and she’s right.
—I had a premonition when they gave Mita that job, it seemed the year would never end, imagine going away for a whole year, and now she’s there to stay. You’ve got to face it, that’s where she’s going to live.
Who is talking? How many? Who’s Mita? No matter—read on, figure it out as you go, it seems to insist. And it continues for pages and pages—plain, ordinary family-talk, the back-and-forth of working-class people gathered in a house in a village in the pampas of Argentina. The topics? The backache that follows from hour after hour of embroidering. As one would expect, gossip galore: Carlos Palau, a movie star to whom Mita might or might not have been engaged, and whose husband might or might not look like him, and how Violeta is wearing makeup because she’s already starting to hook up with her boss. And which chicken will be killed, and does Violet’s father the shoddy shoe repairman deserve his own chicken, and what kind of a cook throws in a bunch of spicy peppers at the last minute out of desperation? (answer: my kind of cook, but that’s another story).
It’s all dialogue, and there are no life preservers of tags or markers to cling to, no indication of how many interlocutors are here and who’s saying what, only the long dashes to indicate that a new voice has entered the fray. A sort of cacophony emerges, and I for one as a reader get a sense of disorientation that is tantalizing—the words are all so familiar, the topics so mundane, and yet I found it difficult to follow. We are “la mosca,” the proverbial fly, or maybe we are a child running around underfoot, or we are the guest at someone else’s family dinner and we don’t know anyone and the person who invited us didn’t even introduce us. But oh what fun, too.
At first I was reminded of Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic, which is almost entirely unattributed dialogue and looks similar on the page. But a quick glance at CG reminds me that Gaddis starts with a paragraph of description:
The bird, a pigeon was it? or a dove (she’d found there were doves here) flew through the air, its colour lost in what light remained. It might have been the wad of rag she’d taken it for at first glance, flung at the smallest of boys out there, wiping mud from his cheek where it hit him, catching it up by a wing to fling it back where one of them now with a broken branch for a bat hit it high……
and so on. Gaddis’s opening is also disorienting but it is nonetheless incredibly precise. We may not know that “she” is Liz is or why she is attending so closely to this detail, but we have the detail. And so when Liz and Billy proceed to have a conversation for the next n pages, there are no “he saids” and “she saids,” but we are clearly in a duet, a volley.
Puig, on the other hand, casts a wider ensemble. Its particular strain of disorientation made me think of a film. No doubt we’ll talk a lot about film, since Puig was at least reputedly more influenced by film than by literature, and given the title and the nods to film so far in the book, it plainly plays a starring role. But no, the film I was led to think of isn’t the kind offering the larger-than-life escapism that Rita Hayworth promises, but rather “Fake Fruit Factory,” Chick Strand’s fascinating and unorthodox 1986 documentary that takes place in a small factory in Mexico where a bunch of women manufacture the painted fruit that winds up in decorative bowls on the coffee tables of the wealthy in El Norte.
Like the early pages of Betrayed, it’s also dominated by dialogue—we get images of the fruit being “manufactured” but they’re all closeups, and we only catch glimpses of who is actually talking in the periphery. So it creates this blur effect, where we know the set of people better than we know any one person—we know the rhythms and intonations of their voices, their concerns, enjoy their humor and get a pretty good sense of their socioeconomic status, etc., in a sort of collage.
There are lots of ways to read this blurring and cacophony; it could have something to do with interdependence, that no character’s individuality matters nearly as much as their place in the workplace, or in the case of Betrayed that we come first from family, from the voices that bombard us and ricochet around us and fly too thick and fast to absorb but wind up in us, on us. Soon enough, Toto, whose story this is, will have his solo, will emerge from the crowd and get his own voice. You want consciousness, Puig will seem to be saying, I’ll give you consciousness. And indeed, part of the delight of the book as it goes on is its refusal to stick to any one style, its Calvinball approach to rules.
But for now, my fellow flies, moscas mios, how are you liking these early pages? (And can somebody please pass the stew with all those extra chilis tossed in?)