Fiction review: Ways of Going Home (John Wilmes, NewCity Lit)

In the beginning of “Ways of Going Home,” the nameless narrator says, “I think it’s a good thing to lose confidence in the solidity of the ground, I think it’s necessary to know that from one moment to the next everything can come tumbling down.” It’s a statement of what’s to come in this novel, which goes on to switch back-and-forth between this fictional narrative and the concurrent real-life one, lived by author Alejandro Zambra as he composes the book. The first fictionalized portion is set during the narrator’s childhood in Chile (the setting of all sections of the book), during the rule of Augusto Pinochet. Everything else comes decades after, and whether it be the author’s, fictional protagonist’s, or love interest’s conflict, this is a story of living in the sociopolitical shadow of that era—and, for these characters, in the shadow of childhood.

The book is at its best when it’s marrying this life-in-shadows with the author’s struggle to understand the purpose of writing novels. “The novel belongs to our parents,” Zambra thought, as a child. “That’s what we grew up believing, that the novel belonged to our parents. We cursed them, and also took refuge in their shadows, relieved. While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner… While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.” But the adult Zambra is decidedly less sure of this judgment; is decidedly less sure that he’s an actor in any significant political way, as he once imagined the grown-ups to be. “Now I think the best thing I’ve done in recent years has been to drink a lot of beer and reread certain books with dedication, with an odd fidelity,” he says, “as if something of my own beat within them, some clue to my destiny.” Thus, it seems that recapturing that myopic, in-the-corner escapism of childhood is the truest pursuit of Zambra’s middle-aged happiness.

And then there’s the parallel between fictional Claudia’s (a sometimes expression of real-life Eme, Zambra’s ex-wife) feelings of freedom in comparison to the Chile of her past—shrouded in secrecy, and running, as her family was politically active in their opposition to Pinochet—and her sense of agency in returning to meet the protagonist again, decades removed from their childhood flirtation, and tell her life’s story on her own, new terms. “The wish to say: I.” Claudia says. “The vague, strange pleasure, even, of answering: ‘My name is Claudia and I’m thirty-three years old.’” It’s a moment that speaks to how eloquently Zambra is able to handle the politically representative pressures that are implicit in the works of a realist, speaking to an international audience—which Zambra has been since Melville House took a winning gamble on 2008’s “Bonsai.”

“Ways of Going Home” is a Farrar, Straus, and Giroux release, and that he’s represented by this giant literary publisher (releaser of works by Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth) is a testament to Zambra’s quick ascendancy. And it’s one we should be thankful for, because at a time when the novel feels more subjugated than ever, it seems this author is trying to write one that carries all of the political and poetic work of its form’s history, but also thoughtfully considering its audience’s natural, evolutionary skepticism of the form, and having a conversation with them about it.

Feb 2013, here


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