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B+ : another fine variation on Vila-Matas' usual themes and approaches
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Mac's Problem (published in the UK as: Mac and His Problem) is narrated by Mac Vives who, at the age of sixty-plus, is "embarking on a new path".
He introduces himself as having been the "owner of a rock-solid construction company", the old family business, that recently went bust and now reduced to relying on the income from his wife Carmen's successful furniture renovation company.
He has always been a compulsive, obsessive reader (as young man he: "always carried in my right pocket a copy of [Cyril] Connolly's book of doubts, which I would secretly stroke, and which gave me the necessary strength to go on opening doors in my role as a poor young lawyer-cum-tea-boy"), with a particular interest in contemporary fiction.
But he claims never to have tried his hand at writing -- until now.
This is a daily exercise that allows me to try my hand at writing -- preliminary literary scraps with my sights on the future -- while saving me from losing all hope in the depths I've been left in by my financial and professional ruin.He is very insistent about it being, and being seen as, a diary. Not a novel. But from early on, he's arguably protesting too much: "But this is a diary ! I shout these words to no one and tell myself in passing that nobody can make another person write a novel. [...] This is a diary, it's a diary, a diary." And occasionally he finds himself drifting dangerously towards what he hopes to avoid:
For a while now, though, I've been following the same short routes that always lead me to the exact same spots in Coyote, which helps to prevent my diary from turning into a novel, which I am still dead set against. But this morning, I foolishly forgot this, and, on several occasions, unwittingly opened the floodgate, exposing myself to events that could very easily have turned into scenes from a novel.There's also his method, as he eventually reveals how he goes about writing this diary -- certainly not the conventional form of merely recording events and thoughts as they come:
[A]lthough I write my diary by hand and always somewhat impulsively, afterward -- hence all those hours spent in the study -- I painstakingly edit what I've written, as if viewing it through a magnifying glass, before transcribing the clean copy onto the computer, printing it out, reading it through again on paper, making more changes, and so on, until, finally, I copy and paste it into another Word documentAdmitting to a: "fascination with falsification", there's also evidence that Mac's editing and shaping of the reality he presents goes considerably beyond what's usually found in diary-writing -- arguably straying far more into the fictional field, with Mac certainly some form of unreliable narrator. He admits -- or claims -- later on to having concealed his actual profession (lawyer), for example, having made up the whole construction company business. (He also plants seeds of doubts in the reader's mind, that: "I might also have been lying when I said I was a beginner at writing".)
As insistent as Mac is that his writing-exercise is strictly diaristic, he is also drawn to other forms and ideas. Indeed, the novel(-that-he's-calling-a-diary) opens:
I'm fascinated by the current vogue for posthumous books, and I'm thinking of writing a fake one that could appear to be "posthumous" and "unfinished" when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete.(So from the first he admits to wanting to fool readers, presenting a written work as one thing when in fact it is something entirely different .....)
Mac also has an "illustrious neighbor", successful author Ander Sánchez -- "the 'celebrated Barcelona writer'". Long ago, Sánchez wrote a novel called Walter's Problem [presumably Walter and His Problem in the UK edition], which Mac has vague recollections of and now returns to; not just that, but he becomes fascinated by the idea of rewriting that work -- and, over the course of his account, describes much of the contents (and how he might adapt them), stories that are each in turn influenced by the style and voices of other authors (Cheever, Djuna Barnes, Borges, Hemingway, and so on). The novel features a ventriloquist -- yet another form of projecting voice and content as/through someone (or something) else) -- and part of its appeal to Mac is how: "the book was a journey back to the origins of the story, to its oral past".
Fundamentally, Mac's Problem is a novel that explores creation, re-creation, repetition, and imitation in literature, the re-telling of stories, in different forms. Mac -- and Vila-Matas -- are looking for new approaches to the novel-form, and Mac's 'diary'/Mac's Problem are yet another attempt at both building on the past (as the many references to other authors and writing suggest) and also reviving the form.
Vila-Matas essentially spells it out well into the novel, having Mac acknowledge:
The writers of the School of Difficult Writing whom I found most interesting were David Markson and William Gaddis. This latter movement is still alive and well, full of the authors who, without actively seeking a consensus, share the idea that the narrative is a process with no end point, no destination. And I couldn't agree more. On the other hand, its departure point is clearly the deliberate abandonment of the traditional ideas on which the concept of the novel is built. The aim is to create a whole program of renewal for the genre of the novel, a transformation in line with the need to give the novel a form that fits with our current historical circumstances. Throughout my life, I have felt a great deal of empathy -- sometimes more intensely than others -- with that now old-fashioned American school which never denied that it was still possible to write great novels, but always acknowledged that the problem for novelists -- not only now, but a century ago -- is to how to avoid simply continuing with the genre as it emerged in the nineteenth century and, instead, find new possibilities.In Mac's Problem Vila-Matas explores and tests out some of these possibilities. He also points out previous examples; for example, one short chapter is devoted to Georges Perec's 53 Days, an (apparently) unfinished and posthumous novel that Mac admits: "has been surreptitiously influencing this apprentice's diary", which he suggests might in fact be seen as:
A "finished" and perfectly thought-out novel, therefore, which Perec planned down to the very last detail, including the final interruption.Vila-Matas has Mac layer -- and peel back layers -- of literary past, adapting them to his fiction. Envisaging rewriting one of the stories in Walter's Problem that came with an epigraph by Cheever Mac imagines:
My "I Had An Enemy" wouldn't begin with the Cheever quote, but with a line from William Faulkner that Roberto Bolaño used as an epigraph in his novella Distant Star: "What star is there falls, with none to watch it ?"Mac notes: "no one has yet been able to locate this line in Faulkner's work", and so it itself may be invention (and false attribution) -- typical of the literary games he is drawn to. [In the original Spanish version of Distant Star Bolaño gives the epigraph in Spanish ("¿Qué estrella cae sin que nadie la mire?"), complicating trying to figure out what Faulkner's (possible) actual words might have been; somewhat annoyingly, the translation-into-English here differs from that published in the English translation of Distant Star (despite both books being published by the same US publisher -- though by different translators), where it is simply: "What star falls unseen ?"]
Authenticity isn't important to Mac/Vila Matas, but rather the potential of references and claims (and quotes from other works ...): what readers can and do read into them. So also Mac faces this issue with Walter's Problem, stunned to find the younger version of his wife Carmen featured in one of the stories from this thirty-year-old text (and then learning that, yes, his wife did have a brief fling with Sánchez, and that he used that in his work -- while also: "adding a little 'imaginary life' to the mix"). In the present day he then finds appearances continue to be (possibly) deceptive, circumstances allowing the possibility of the interpretation that Carmen and Sánchez are still or again having a thing. Similarly, there's a shadowy figure that repeatedly crops up whom Mac takes to be Sánchez's nephew -- only to learn that Sánchez has no nephews ..... Overall, Mac seems no better at interpreting his surroundings and events than he is in handling (writing or reading) a literary text: things are often not quite what they seem, and constantly open to interpretation.
Mac's interactions and activities, though often tying in to his literary efforts, help keep the novel from sinking too far into simply literary navel-gazing (enjoyable though that too is), as do other facets, such as Mac's horoscope-fascination -- yet another form of written statements open to many interpretations. What begin as the 'Whoroscope' is reduced to 'Oroscope' and then 'Oscope' (losing: "its full name, and almost its raison d'être, because Peggy Day erased herself, to put it kindly" -- yet another author-figure leaving yet another form of unfinished work), with Mac simply taking up the slack for his purposes.
At one point Mac goes on at some length about an epigraph Sánchez chose for one of his stories in Walter's Problem, Bernard Malamud telling Philip Roth: "What's next isn't the point" (in, as Roth's original account has it: "a soft voice suffused with fury"). Mac recounts and considers the encounter between the two masters, Malamud struggling with his latest efforts -- "there was nothing yet to like or dislike -- he hadn't got started, really, however much he wanted to think otherwise", Roth says of what Malamud read to him -- and Vila-Matas eagerly embracing this fragmentary work and all its potential (both in the sense of what might become of it and of what can be read into it).
For Vila-Matas, too, and throughout Mac's Problem, what's next isn't the point. There is enough story here to satisfy readers who need something of an arc to hold onto and follow -- indeed there's quite a bit of story, from Mac's writing-work to his relationship with Carmen to his observation of Sánchez as well as the doings of Sánchez's (supposed) nephew -- but it's the mass and mess of literary interplay and reflection that makes the novel, adroitly spun out by Vila-Matas. Some of these are familiar games and observations, but there's certainly sufficient novelty here too.
At one point a fed up Carmen tells her husband: "You can't go on like this", but much of the fun in this -- as with most of Vila-Matas' work -- is in how many plates he flings into the air and keeps spinning (with Mac's argument with his wife here leading to a situation where: "if plates didn't fly, that's only because they happened to be out of Carmen's reach" ...).
Mac's Problem is another novel of finding a voice and building on a literary past and heritage and trying to find new possibilities for the form In the final chapter, Mac finds: "I am one and many and yet I do not know who I am". The self, and work, remain, above all, indefinite, even as much is recognizably familiar in them, echoes and shadows that shift throughout the reading.
It might not be everyone's idea of reading-fun, but for those who enjoy Vila-Matas' literature-steeped and multi-referential form-adjusting story-telling, Mac's Problem is yet another very enjoyable ride.
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 April 2019
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Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas was born in 1948. He has won numerous literary prizes.
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