Review: In ‘Loquela,’ Carlos Labbé dives into the rabbit hole of fiction, alarm clock in hand
Given that the first word of Chilean novelist Carlos Labbé's fascinating novel “Loquela” is “Carlos,” the reader of contemporary Anglophone fiction might be forgiven for imagining that she is about to embark on yet another journey to the land of lightly fictionalized stand-ins for the author, in which a good deal of the payoff comes not from the development of plot or setting but from how adroitly the author slips in and out of a fictional doppelganger’s skin. This kind of writing typically borrows with such gusto from the toolbox of the memoir, travelogue and diary that it’s often hard to tell (see Rachel Cusk’s recent “Outline” or Teju Cole’s “Open City”) that we’re in the space of fiction at all.
And here is where “Loquela” distinguishes itself excitingly. This is because instead of using self-reference to move away from fiction, Labbé is set on plunging, clanging alarm clock in hand, straight down the fictional rabbit hole to see what fabulous creatures might be woken. Indeed, his use of his own first name is just the first stop on a trip into a light- and dark-matter prism, a world made up of distinct but overlapping layers of narrative reality — where the dead speak to the living and the living dream of imaginary worlds — that make straightforward plot summary difficult.
“Loquela” then has far more to do in terms of approach with the work of Julio Cortázar or Labbé's fellow Chilean, Roberto Bolaño, or a film like “Synecdoche, New York,” than it does with the prose fiction of W.G. Sebald, whose beautiful, elegiac books have proved so inspiring to so many writers in the U.S. and in England.
Certainly it is true that the Carlos mentioned in the first line is — like Carlos Labbé was when “Loquela” was first published in the original Spanish in 2009 — a young writer, one who is working on a novel, but Labbé is more likely to wink than sigh, and the novel Carlos is writing is likely the book we are holding in our hands and, moreover, its characters seem to know it. Like us, they are confronted straight from the start by existential and metafictional quandaries, as in this exchange between Carlos and his girlfriend, Eliza, whose complex relationship arguably sits at “Loquela’s” heart. “I need to take a step back from the plot so I can figure out who the characters are, he said; you’ll finally find out whether they’re flesh and bone or paper, she murmured.” Further increasing the sense of mise en abyme that is everywhere present, some of “Loquela’s” characters frequent the everyday world of modern, urban Chile and a fantastical city called Neutria, which grows from a children’s game over the course of the novel into arguably the most “real” place we have access to. Neutria, like “Loquela” itself, is built out of cunning and desire, and if it ultimately begins to vanish before our eyes this feels like a comment on mortality and on the nature of fiction itself.
That Carlos is writing a detective story — one we catch glimpses of throughout — adds additional fuel to the engine of genre that playfully powers the book. There is death and seeking and significant doses of existential angst set to spin in these pages. So that much like Cortázar’s great “Hopscotch,” or Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives,” or a recent work like “The Story of My Teeth” by Valeria Luiselli, what we encounter in “Loquela” is a skillful unmaking — complete with diary excerpts, missives from beyond the grave and an invented barn-burning manifesto on a literary movement, “Corporalism,” which seeks to breathe life into the “corpse” of literature — that manages to offer new ways of thinking about what the novel can do.
This is not to say “Loquela” eschews more traditional literary pleasures. The book is full of active, interesting observation, which has been brought over from the Spanish into English with brio and precision by translator Will Vanderhyden:
“I danced with S almost all night, we had a good time together, thrilled by the stupid movements extremities make when there is something driving them: music that takes hold of the hips and arms and chest, as if a different type of pounding blood animated us and the autonomy of the organism were lost when confronted with this pulse that comes from outside, that connects and disconnects us…”
Labbé's characters too are engaging, none more so than a mysterious letter writer, Violetta, whose philosophy-rich chapters are among the book’s most appealing. If Carlos comes off as a kind of cliché of the earnest relentlessly allusive author, “He Who Is Writing the Novel,” this is by design and Labbé has great fun with him, as does the reader.
In one of two epigraphs to the book, Labbé cites Roland Barthes, who defines “Loquela as a word that designates the flux of language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequence of an action: an emphatic form of the lover’s discourse.” That the words of a brilliant, shape-shifting Frenchman, who wrote books called “The Empire of Signs” and “The Pleasure of the Text,” should serve as the gateway into Labbé's “Loquela” is apt: strange signs and curious pleasure are everywhere in this novel.
By Carlos Labbé
Translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
200 pp., $13.95 paper
Hunt is the author, most recently, of the novel “Neverhome.”
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