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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Uselessness

by
Eduardo Lalo


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Uselessness



Title: Uselessness
Author: Eduardo Lalo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 185 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Uselessness - US
La inutilidad - US
Uselessness - UK
Uselessness - Canada
La inutilidad - España
  • Spanish title: La inutilidad
  • Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

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Our Assessment:

B : drifts, but engaging -- and comes together quite well

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Uselessness seems to be an autobiographical work of fiction, the narrator resembling Lalo -- a Puerto Rican who went on to study in New York and then Paris, struggling to become an artist (a writer, mainly, but not only), who returned to San Juan and settled there. It is a two-part novel: in the first, covering two-thirds of the novel, the narrator describes his time in Paris; in the second, his (many) years since then in San Juan.
       The period in Paris is dominated by a series of relationships -- competing, at times, but with the narrator rarely able to handle more than one significant association at a time, while also repeatedly tiring of these relatively quickly.
       The novel begins with a break in one such relationship, with Marie, whom he had already lived with while in New York. She was his lover, but also: "my collaborator in reading and writing projects" -- and, significantly: "the only person in Paris I could speak Spanish with in Paris. I was losing not only a lover but also my native language".
       Ties remain between them, but Marie takes up with a married man. It is an unhappy love affair, but one that prevents her from rekindling her intimate relationship with the narrator. Marie eventually has a breakdown, and is hustled off back to New York by her mother -- but even long-distance, something of a relationship remains. As the other woman with whom the narrator is more deeply involved with, Simone, observes:

"I don't have anyone else."
     "Neither do I."
     "Well, you have Marie."
     "Don't be silly. She's on another continent."
     "But you still have her."
       Marie does return to Paris, and they do find their way back together -- for a while.
I needed her complicit presence, her companionship; I enjoyed what we did and dreamed, but I remained alert, uneasy about a future I couldn't envision.
       The interim relationship with Simone had been intense but also brief and doomed:
     We'd been together barely three or four months, but the intensity of what we had lived, our almost exclusive concentration on each other, the trip to Spain, and the way in which I had forgotten Marie over that period, allowed us to feel as if we had been together much longer. We didn't realize that the relationship was already in decline.
       Finally, there's the narrator's relationship with Didier Pétrement, an intellectual friendship struck up by chance, with Pétrement a kind of mentor to the younger man.
       Despite these various ties and connections, the narrator throws in the towel, rather abruptly abandoning Paris and returning to the motherland after nine years spent abroad -- even as he knows the smaller country offers far fewer opportunities, provincial in every way (and especially when compared to Paris).
       "Time gradually blurred the past", he says, but it is notable that the Paris-section contains much in clear and precise detail, while it is his adjustment to and settling down in San Juan that is presented almost as a blur. He admits: "With the passing of the years I was becoming another man and got to be many things", but he does little more than list these -- and it is the Paris years that strike much more as formative, with much about that time related more expansively. So also he notes about his time in Europe:
There, in a few years, I had lived with an intensity that was hard to match in the life that would follow.
       Indeed, it is only in following and writing about a student he becomes acquainted with, a younger man struggling to find his way and himself (including through poetry) who flames out spectacularly, that the narrator returns to more focused (and intense) description. He finds in this Alejandro: "the path that was also mine", and telling Alejandro's story helps and allows him to come to terms with his own choices, and the role and place he has chosen for himself.
       There is some sense of drift to Uselessness -- in no small part, of course, because it's narrator is indeed adrift, and the occasional hold proves not particularly strong: it takes him a very long time to truly find his footing. It's not disagreeable, but it does contribute to the sense that the novel is not merely one of self-exploration, but also of trying to figure out how to relate it. So also the narrator suggests at one point:
     I've thought that the story of a person like myself could be expressed by chronicling the books and music that memory preserves from each era of one's life. It strikes me that upon picking up a volume or listening to a melody, one reproduces in miniature the famous Proustian scene.
       There's some of this in Uselessness -- a list here of his first years representing San Juan (which he has difficulty describing in any other sort of detail), for example, but also an author such as the fictional Paul Neptune, whose works play a significant role in the narrator's life and are repeatedly mentioned and discussed.
       The unusual pacing and focus -- some very detailed sections, and then long periods that are summarily disposed of -- gives an odd feel to this life-finding story, but overall it works quite well, capturing the essential, even if it doesn't always appear to, at first.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 October 2017

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Links:

Uselessness: Reviews: Other books by Eduardo Lalo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Puerto Rican author Eduardo Lalo was born in 1960.

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© 2017 the complete review

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