(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.”