AUGUST 31, 2018
THERE’S NO DENYING the thrill of a well-constructed book in which plot and characters move across the page in perfect synchronicity. Why, then, is it so often the messier books, riddled with inconsistencies and never reaching logical resolutions, which capture our imagination? Books that, intentionally or not, invite us to stick our fingers into plot holes and probe around, and that cause us to shake our heads in frustration at the incomprehensible choices of their authors. Those are the ones that stay with us, that we pick apart in our book clubs, that provide the endless fodder for heated discussions with other like-minded literary obsessives.
Carla Guelfenbein’s In the Distance with You starts with a promising premise. An 80-year-old writer is discovered unconscious in her home, her half-naked body crumpled at the foot of the stairs. The obvious conclusion is that she tripped and fell. But Daniel, the friend and neighbor who finds her, believes she was pushed. He convinces the local authorities to open an inquiry and, at the same time, begins his own investigation into what happened. As he searches for answers, he compulsively carries on a one-sided conversation with her, at her bedside and in his head.
Your hands were curled into claws, as if they’d been scratching invisible bodies before they surrendered. A pool of blood encircled your head. You also had a long scratch on one arm, a reddish streak that ran from your wrist to your elbow. Your nightgown was bunched up around your hips, and your pubis, smooth and white, showed between your open, elderly legs. I covered you as best I could with your nightgown.
This is our undignified introduction to Vera Sigall, the fictional Chilean writer who spends the majority of Guelfenbein’s novel in a coma. She is modeled on the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (whom Guelfenbein has cited as a literary influence, along with Virginia Woolf), but could just as easily be based on any number of the 20th-century female artists — Georgia O’Keeffe, María Luisa Bombal, Agnes Martin, and Victoria and Silvina Ocampo — whose tumultuous lives and savage talent gained them cult-like followings in their lifetimes. This link, between Vera and her historical counterparts, is the lure. But though it is presented ostensibly as her story, Vera Sigall is merely the juncture at which other stories converge.
In the Distance with You is told from the points of view of three different narrators (two of them men). There is Daniel, the neighbor whose attachment to Vera seems unusually intense, even for an implied proxy mother-son relationship. He is a man who women, young and old, find irresistible. Daniel has “an effect […] on other people,” which he reveals as part of a disturbing soliloquy-like confession in which he describes being sexually molested by one of his mother’s friends. “I’d never had a girlfriend, not for lack of opportunities, but because something essential in me had been shattered. […] I must have been twelve, or maybe thirteen, when I was sexually assaulted for the first time.” His marriage to Gracia, the beautiful, intelligent, and driven woman he first met when he was 16 and she 20, is in the process of splintering. His once promising career as an architect has stalled, mainly due to his own disinterest in clients rather than a lack of opportunities presenting themselves. He currently dreams of opening his own restaurant, a dream that Gracia doesn’t support.
It’s obvious that Guelfenbein has cast Daniel as her sympathetic, even idealized, romantic leading man. But the more we get to know him, the harder it becomes to reconcile his image of himself with his actual behavior. While he perceives himself as being incredibly sensitive, in reality he’s unreliable and self-absorbed. I found myself sympathizing with his wife. Listed among her numerous faults is her quite understandable dissatisfaction with Daniel’s lack of motivation and weakness of character. After helping him further his architectural career, she watches him abandon it at the first impediment and then proceed to do nothing with his life. He has her cancel the anniversary party she’s been planning for weeks so he can sit vigil at Vera’s hospital bed. He has an affair. Mostly, though, he behaves like a pretentious ass. Describing Gracia, Daniel tells us that when she presses her lips together he can see “the first traces time was starting to leave on her face. I’d never paid attention to our difference in age, nor had it seemed important. But now, all of the sudden it was obvious.” In many ways Gracia is a tragic figure, forced into the role of villain simply because she becomes superfluous to Daniel’s arc with the introduction of Emilia.
Emilia is another character who does not align with our expectations of a sympathetic protagonist. Young, fragile, fey Emilia — who has a French father who isn’t her father and a Chilean mother who is an ethereal presence shimmering at the edges of their family, ever poised to drift off — has come to Chile to work on her thesis. She spends her days at the Bombal Library (a possible reference to the 1930s writer María Luisa) studying their collection of Vera’s papers. She and Daniel meet cute outside of Vera’s hospital room. And, like Daniel, she has experienced trauma. She cannot tolerate being touched by another person, though she has a fiancé, a childhood sweetheart who is patient, supportive, and encourages her to travel to Santiago to expand her horizons.
Emilia’s chapters are filled with beautiful imagery and metaphors, many of them revolving around astronomy, her adoptive father’s discipline. “I remembered the way my father searched for his dead stars. Barely visible stars, rapid in movement and weak in luminosity. The only way to spot them is to search near the sun. The sun’s light reveals their movements.” She is searching for references to the night sky in Vera’s writing when she discovers a literary connection/communion between the writer and the celebrated Chilean poet Horacio Infante. Vera and Infante were once lovers. It is Infante who introduces Emilia to Vera’s work and facilitates her trip to Santiago, Chile. He arranges for the two to meet. And it is his narration that provides the details of Vera’s turbulent life, at the same time cementing his own place in it.
After so many years, when I try to put together what happened next, I realize that the events as they occurred are distorted by the multiple versions of them that Vera and I re-created over the course of time, endowing them with subjectivity and with a patina of romanticism that they doubtless didn’t have. There are moments like that. Moments that in time turn into shared fables. We reconstruct them with the purpose of accommodating them to our story and transforming them into something we can hoard.
Whereas A. S. Byatt based her entire novel Possession on unraveling a literary mystery — which, let’s be honest, is catnip to even the casual reader — Guelfenbein assigns only a passing significance to the one Emilia uncovers. It’s a serious problem when what an author leaves out of a book is potentially more interesting than what is kept in. Guelfenbein chooses, instead, to cycle through her three first-person narrators, using each of their connections to Vera as the backdrop against which their individual stories play out. This isn’t the first time she’s used this type of multiple points of view format: her 2008 novel, The Rest Is Silence, employs a very similar structure. She focuses on giving voices to ambiguous characters, leaving her readers conflicted and feeling as if they are responding to caricatures of types. Daniel and Emilia, in particular, feel implausible … yet inexplicably fascinating. It all plays into the weird psychology present in In the Distance with You, particularly in the relationship dynamics between the male and female characters.
Making the decision not to tell the story from Vera’s point of view is a calculated omission that means that she is defined either through the male gaze or Emilia’s projections, leaving her mythology firmly intact. But the interesting story here was always about the women. One that, unfortunately, remains only half-told. If you are expecting a tale of female empowerment, this is not it. Only two of the three female characters actually meet, and then only briefly. Only Emilia is allowed to speak in her own voice, and even then her development is still dependent in part on the male gaze. By any standard, In the Distance with You fails the Bechdel test in spectacular fashion.
Like Vera, Carla Guelfenbein is a Chilean novelist of Russian-Jewish descent. This is her second book to be translated into English (after winning the Premio Alfaguara de Novela, a prestigious Spanish-language literary award, in 2015). The translation is by John Cullen, a prolific translator who, in addition to Spanish, works in French, Italian and German. This particular translation is capable but lacks complexity. Vanilla prose punctuated by sudden flashes of unexpected brightness. And while, overall, Cullen’s style works with the text, lines like, “The house behind us, with light streaming from every window, evoked the image of a cruise ship from which we’d disembarked and which was now sailing imperturbably on” feel underserved. This may not initially seem to be the worst line, but the underlying poetry in the imagery is sabotaged by a clunkiness at the conjuncion. Like so much else in this book it, too, falls short of its potential.
The cardinal rule of book reviewing is to always review the book as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. So it’s important to state: everything discussed above is present in the text. Guelfenbein just fails to develop it. Very early on, she loses her focus, and Vera moves from the center to the periphery of the main action. As a result, the question put forth in the opening chapter — who pushed Vera down the stairs? — loses all its urgency. Other mysteries and secrets become more important. By the time Vera’s attacker is revealed, Daniel, along with the reader, has lost interest. We’ve all moved on. Infidelities, misunderstandings, betrayals, disillusionment, exotic neurosis, childhood trauma, death, and an excess of tragedy and drama for any one group of people — In the Distance with You has all the twists and turns of a long-running daytime soap condensed into a single novel. What ultimately carries it isn’t the plot, but the psychology of the characters. These are incredibly messy human beings whose flaws are strewn across the page for us to dissect and examine ad nauseum. It’s a particularly overwrought form of amusement, to be sure, but amusing all the same.