Voices for Manuel Puig: a very, very, very late response to March’s reading

(Note: Sorry for the late response! Wasn’t around much in March.)

“Embroidery doesn’t seem tiring, but then your back begins to ache.” (7)

“But by watering the pots practically twenty times a day she finally managed to grow some beautiful plants in a kind of small patio behind the kitchen.” (8)

“Because he likes croquettes and can’t eat fried food. Clara takes the time to boil the meat for him, cut it up, season it with rosemary and cheese and pop it in the oven for a few minutes till the croquettes turn golden brown. They look like real croquettes; she fools the eye and doesn’t upset the stomach.” (13)

“First you have to sweep, then you go over it with a dry mop till the floor’s clean enough to take the wax. Then you dip the mop in the wax, without soaking it, and you spread an even coat of wax over the entire floor. Then you let it dry a little and then comes the most tiring part, which is walking over it with rags to bring out the shine.” (13-14).




I like a novel that begins with women’s voices, women’s conversation—about work, gossip, future plans, physical pain. A novel that talks, not necessarily to you or for you. A novel that makes you listen, not just to any voices, but to voices so often dismissed, ignored or totally silenced: the female typists who work backbreaking hours; the housewife; later, the maid, the nurse.

Puig turns the idea of the disembodied voice on its no-longer-figurative head; these voices belong to the invisible labouring bodies behind the cross-stitch, the typed page, the waxed floor, the healthy plant, the healthful croquette. Jackie Wang, in a blog post on building the language-house, writes: “Listening is a policy of the language-house, which I should distinguish from hearing. You can listen with your body too, and with whatever extrasensory perceptual organs you have.”

Puig is asking you to listen with everything, to everything. The entire environment is animated to speak, to mean, to bear a human trace: what a cross-stitch is saying, what a typed page is saying, what a waxed floor is saying. About the working bodies held in them. How the everyday still has to be produced, and who produces it.

If anything, this chorus of voices makes for a kind of re-embodying, a fragile path back to an unseen body. Even when you can’t see the body, it’s there, Puig reminds us.

“I always see the same faces there, there’s so little light in that library. Those miserable lamps hanging from the ceiling are black with dirt, they each have white glass shades, like ballet tutus, but absolutely black with soot. With a rag soaked in turpentine they could be cleaned in a minute, the lights as well as the shades, and there would be more light in that library.” (16)

Writing can be like a rag soaked in turpentine. “More light in that library.” Puig isn’t talking only about cleaning, or even clarity, but the complex and ongoing process of illumination, of transparency. How can you better see the things that are already there, but kept shrouded? How to handle the moral difficulty—the moral urgency—of finding a way to bring something into light and audition; of seeing and hearing things by seeing and hearing through things?

Why dialogue instead of description? What kinds of discourses are being refused by the novel (the omniscient narrator, the third person, the aerial view, uniformity of tense), and what kinds of discourses are being emphasized? In a novel where every character’s lives and actions are being violently circumscribed, what does it mean for every word in that novel to be defiantly, insistently rooted in subjecthood? In what that character thinks, feels, lives.

Speaking for myself, at least, for the writer that I am: the formal question has always been a moral question. How do you find the words that are commensurate to the matter that will be held in them? “The most tiring part . . . is walking over it with rags to bring out the shine.”

Continue reading

His Light Materials: Puig, Film, and “Gruesome Tangos”

"So, ya more of a Faulkner or Hemingway-type?"

I hope some of you are reading and digging Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. In my first post, I talked about the disorienting opening of the novel, which thrusts us right into the middle of pages of dialogue without any sense of how many characters are talking or who they are. The book then goes on to various other chapters of dialogue, including a one-sided phone conversation, and after that into various internal monologues from the “main character,” Toto (it is difficult to call him that in a novel which is so decentered), as well as from other characters in the village of Vallejos. If you are on the fence about reading or reluctant because of the difficulties, I’m here to vouch that .

By the end of the book, if my own experience is in any way generalizable, you’ll want to go back to the opening chapters with some new insight, and will have the experience of being in a country that you’ve lived in for a few months–you may not pick up on every reference, every idiomatic toss-off, but you’ll grasp a lot more than the first time when you were struggling just to stay with the pages. Continue reading

Plunging Puigward: Welcome to La Plata, Mosca

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: Continue reading

Announcing the Book Club Schedule!

The votes are in, and the winner of the poll for the first book to be discussed in the Big Other Book Club is Tom McCarthy’s C.  Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hailed by many and knocked by maybe even more, McCarthy describes the book as dealing with technology and mourning.  I’m excited to have, as our first book for discussion, a contest finalist that’s merit has been argued.  All the more fuel for our discussion. I’ll start reading quite soon, and begin posting questions, comments and death threats in January.

In the  mean time, here’s the rest of the schedule for 2011:

January: Tom McCarthy C

February: Mary Caponegro The Complexities of Intimacy

March: Manuel Puig Betrayed by Rita Hayworth

April: Stanley Elkin Searches and Seizures: 3 Novellas

May: Djuna Barnes Nightwood

June: Lyn Hejinian My Life

July: John Barth The Sotweed Factor

August: Gordon Lish Peru

September: John Gardner and John Maier translation of Gilgamesh

October: John Hawkes Travesty

November: Helen Vendler Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries

December: Mo Yan Big Breasts and Wide Hips