Why do you read? Why do you read what you read? When you pick up a novel for the first time, do you think ‘this looks good’ and wonder how it will end or do you look over the book and consider how the story might be told, how the author might attempt to engage you, and/or might the author have something to say beyond the story itself? Are you a reader who wants and expects entertainment or are you a reader whose expectations demand engagement of a sort that you know doesn’t appeal to all readers?
If you’re one of the readers who expect more than story, more than a gripping page-turner, someone who wants to be spoken to and not just entertained, you just might like Javier Marías. He’s a demanding author—his expectations of readers are great. His willingness to let a narrator’s thoughts wander in seemingly aimless and endless directions and to subjects that may or may not seem to speak to the story itself will slam covers closed for many readers. If you find Saramago, or Bolaño, or Henry James, or Melville too long, too wordy, too ‘boring’ (like this review), Marías might be an author best avoided—one left to the die-hards, the critics, the snobs, and the award committees. His paragraphs might go on for pages while his sentences can feel almost as long. He expects much of his readers, but the payoff is worth the time and effort.
In TITBTOM, the narrator, a perhaps unreliable narrator (aren’t almost all first-person narrators unreliable?), recounts the night he spent with a married woman as they have dinner and anticipate making love once her small child finally falls asleep, but her physical distress escalates, or degenerates, culminating in her death while her young son witnesses his partially dressed mother and the narrator in his parents’ bedroom and the narrator considers what might be happening in other parts of the city and world before returning the child to his bed, removing all traces of his having been in the dead woman’s apartment, considering voices on the woman’s answering machine, attempting to provide for the child before abandoning the apartment, and then later attempting to learn the fate of the child, the identities of the callers, and if his presence in the apartment has been detected (a longwinded sentence not uncharacteristic of the text of the novel, though much less compelling or artful). Check out Chris’ much better review & synopsis hereTITBTOM is more than a story of an untimely death, more than a story about how that death affects other characters—it’s as much about how what we don’t know affects us as much as what we do know, and how the dead live on; the narrator considers the link between himself and the dead mother:
Perhaps the link was merely that, a kind of enchantment or haunting, which, when you think about it, is just another name for the curse of memory, for the fact that events and people recur and reappear indefinitely and never entirely go away, they may never completely leave or abandon us, and, after a certain point, they live in or inhabit our minds, awake and asleep, they lodge there for lack of anywhere more comfortable, struggling against their own dissolution and waiting to find embodiment in the one thing left or infinite resonance of what they once did or of one particular event: infinite, but increasingly weary and tenuous. I had become that connecting thread.The story is haunting. It builds slowly, making connections between characters and memories, tightening a circle that reads like the dénouement of a mystery. Readers, too, are haunted by the memories of the narrator—so thoroughly are we privy to his every thought. The narrator can be compassionate in protecting the secrets of living and the dead; he can also be humorous: “I was drunk, but that’s no excuse, you can be drunk in as many different ways as you can be sober.” TITBTOM isn’t a long book, but it’s slow-going, dense; it’s a novel that is exhaustive without being exhausting. This is one for the few, those willing to work for their reward. I've never been one for publisher loyalty, but I'm batting close to 1.000 with NDP.