The sweetly daffy narrator of “Empty Words” is comic stand-in for its Uruguayan author, sharing a wife, son, dog and professions: novelist and constructor of crossword puzzles. In order to improve his character and find fulfillment, happiness and money, he embarks on the discipline of “graphological self-therapy.” In other words, words as beautifully crafted handwriting. One could see it as a cerebral KonMari method of decluttering the mind. And so begins a heroic if batty effort at meticulous form devoid of content.
It is, of course, impossible not to make sense when using words with dictionary meanings in grammatical sentences. But the narrator wages a guerrilla war on meaning by constantly harping on the act of writing and questioning its relation to physical reality. He will say one thing and immediately contradict himself. For example, one has to have beliefs, expressible in words, “Which means that to get anywhere in life, you have to believe in something. In other words, you have to be wrong.”
What results is a very funny satire on the realistic novel with its emphasis on character development, progress from one point to another, big themes of love and hate, life and death and so on.
Nothing develops here, and important matters, such as the narrator’s relationship with his wife and son, his fraught relations with his mother — who dies in a brief, passing mention — are treated as peripheral topics or elided altogether.
The continuity of the realistic novel is torn into bits of interruption. Wife and son appear in the doorway to ask him to do something and he bats them away as he concentrates on forming the letter G.
A murder warrants only a brief mention as he worries about the best way to form an X.
So what increasingly gets his attention are trivial matters. He notices passing aches and pains, the effects of changing weather on his body, the increasing dust and chaos around him as he and the family move from one house to another. Star billing goes to the dog Pongo and his mysterious comings and goings, and the choreography of his relations with the cat.
The more our man flails against imposing a verbal order on his life, the more chaotic his circumstances become. But underneath the willed nonsense, a sly philosophy of language presses more and more against the feverishly jaunty surface. More and more, the opaque, mostly illogical narratives of his dreams obsess him, and he runs up against the fundamental question of the self. Is there such an entity outside of words? What kind of narration comes closest to translating self and world?
Ironically, Mario Levrero’s brilliant little tour de force, first published in 1996, is an extremely realistic book. It captures the daily self-interrupting chatter of the mind which goes hither and yon, notices odds and ends, does not narrate from a beginning to middle and end. What makes us on a daily basis is not tragedy or even pain, nor sparks of joy. It is thinking about where I left my keys, dreading that interview, wondering if there are enough potatoes for dinner, sighing at the rain.
Minneapolis critic Brigitte Frase is a winner of the Nona Balakian citation for excellence in reviewing, given by the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 122 pages, $16.95.