“No, nothing bad”


Chorus, Jeffrey Michael Harp

From The Threepenny Review:

For such a heavyweight literary project, which might be expected to hedge its bets, Your Face Tomorrow gambles heavily on the narrator’s attraction for the reader. Its three volumes unfold with the searching, cherishing, recursive aimlessness of intimate talk. The style can appear lightly confiding and undefended, as if no sooner is a thought conceived than it’s conveyed, but its regard for the humble virtue of trying not to lie or to pretend to conviction where none exists is actually fantastically intense, a source of great strangeness: it’s so deeply alienated from the presumed trustworthiness of language that little ecstasies of qualification haze every too-adamant assertion. All its impediments serve an estranging love. Language, it begins to seem, traffics continually in unearned certainty: it can’t help it. To love language profoundly is to subject it to the closest questioning, to hold it fast when it tries to elude you, not to accept even its most adorable lie. In Your Face Tomorrow, language is Albertine.

Questioning is not only style’s template, but plot’s. Employed in a shady operation run by the even shadier Bertram Tupra, the novel’s protagonist, Jaime Deza, has the novelist-like job of “interpreting” other people after observing them, one at a time, in person or on film. Scrutiny isn’t confined to the office, and interrogation-calibre questioning figures in most of the novel’s conversations, even those of colleagues or friends. Apart from Jaime’s estranged wife, who dodges his inquiries, nobody seems to find such questioning intrusive—in this world, it’s a given that people need to grapple mightily with the enigma of each other. It might almost seem that the trilogy’s modus operandi was modeled whimsically on the Oxford tutorial: after all, narrator Jaime (whose “variable first name” can be Jacobo or Jack or Diego or Iago) first appeared as a visiting scholar in the novel All Souls, set at Oxford. Since they are alone together (the tutorial’s justification goes), the tutee can’t get away with evasions, and the tutor can browbeat, quiz, and challenge till the harried tutee at last formulates a defensible conviction. Just so, Your Face Tomorrow tends to pair its characters off for long conversations in pursuit of epistemological quarry.

This is no Proustian party, merrily indiscriminate in its invitations; in the course of three volumes we meet strikingly few people, and their interactions have a destined symmetricality. Thus the first volume, Fever and Spear, discloses the terrors of “the eternity of Franco’s regime” in a rambling talk between Jaime Deza and his revered mentor Sir Peter Wheeler—literary scholar, ex-Oxford prof, and former MI6 agent—who remarks of Spain’s Civil War that there “was a kind of all-embracing hatred that surfaced at the slightest provocation and wasn’t prepared to consider any mitigating factor or information or nuance.” A blurred black-and-white photo, the first included in the book, shows the young man who would, if he’d lived, have been Jaime’s uncle: he was shot in the head and left lying in the street. (Not included, though the reader can’t doubt its existence, is the “small bureaucratic photo” of the uncle’s murdered body. Coming across it among his mother’s belongings after her death, Jaime’s “first impulse was to cover it up again with the little piece of satin, like someone protecting a living eye from seeing the face of a corpse, and as if I were suddenly aware that one is not responsible for what one sees, but for what one looks at, and that the latter can always be avoided—you always have the choice—after the inevitable first glimpse, which is treacherous, involuntary, fleeting, and takes you by surprise…”) Jaime’s father barely escaped death after his best friend informed on him, recounting lies. Lies, lies, lies are the tongue of war, which everyone was either compelled to speak for self-protection or spoke eagerly from motiveless hatred; the uses these lies were put to included torture and murder. As Jaime asks, as Sir Peter answers, we follow the groping of incredulity, we hear the lulls necessary for absorbing shock. Because these terrors are told, suffused with genuine sorrow (which can only be that of an individual), savagery is restored to horrors that otherwise, through the impersonal operations of time, have grown abstract, dismissable, as if they could never happen again. How deeply human, how natural, to believe in the pastness, in the far-awayness, of unbearable terrors, to believe we could never have been either their object or their perpetrators—this, exactly this, is the irresistible lie summoning the irresistible energies of Your Face Tomorrow. The first volume alerts us to the trilogy’s interest in the re-instilling of shockingness to terror, the honing of its time- and custom-dulled blade.

But this ferocity, since it seems the opposite of charm, can take some time to reveal itself. Like the flick of butterfly wings initiating a hurricane, the novel’s 1,273 pages begin, “One should never tell anyone anything…”; and in its final line, Your Face Tomorrow offers a phrase—“‘No,’ I said, ‘nothing bad’”—so natural you could find yourself saying it in the next five minutes. (To make room for this unpretentious newcomer, my private collection of more-or-less memorized famous last lines shuffled aside, worrying they had been wrong to long so for immortality.) Yet as an ending this line is everything a trilogy could want: evocative in the work’s own terms, revelatory of character, thematically cunning. Marías’s companionability is one of those aesthetic shocks hinting at larger recognitions about the way fiction works, or might work. What if his charm is, as literature, candidly, mortally serious—what, in that case, changes?

“Caressing Repetitions”, Elizabeth Tallent, The Threepenny Review