On Obliterating How Narrative Art Should Function
Translator Will Vanderhyden in Conversation with Carlos Labbé
To read Carlos Labbé’s fiction is to surrender your preconceptions about how narrative art is supposed to function, to enter a collaborative space where meaning is made not by direct exposition but through repetition, accretion, and juxtaposition. Labbé manipulates form and convention not as some empty postmodern gesture, but to put pressure on social, political, and linguistic structures, to undermine tired hierarchies, and to breathe new life into the experience of literature.
This interview was done on the occasion of the publication of Spiritual Choreographies, Labbé’s seventh novel and third I’ve translated into English. Also an accomplished musician, Labbé directly incorporates—in both form and content—that other artistic pursuit into this novel. With a rhythmic dialectical structure, a polyvocal narration, and a precise yet elusive style, he crafts the story of an avant-rock band and its various members, a story that flits in and out of genres, that draws in and plays with the ideas of artists and thinkers as wide ranging as Lawrence Hayward, Thomas Mann, Lydia Cabrera, Chantal Mouffe, and Michel de Certeau, a story that has at its heart a defiant and original artistic vision and an aspirational and inclusive politics. I think readers, even those well acquainted with Labbé’s previous work, will find Spiritual Choreographies surprising, profound, and—hopefully—delightful.
Will Vanderhyden: Thinking about the shapes your books take. About what’s given and what’s left out. About their density, their provocation. About how they demand active engagement yet evade resolution. How they play with genre, with convention, with expectation. How do you approach structuring your fictions? Are they sketched out in advance or arrived at in the process of composition?
Carlos Labbé: Someone who writes and earns the privilege of publishing a book in a society overwhelmed with brief communications can’t help but savor the promise of permanence, the privilege that one or many people might listen to you and all your voices during a prolonged period while reading your pages.
That enjoyment, that pleasure of the word, no doubt charges the prose and the structure of a book. Beyond a structure, which every novelist sketches out in at least some rudimentary way before writing a novel, what I’m most interested in is creating devices that precede the act of writing, precisely to charge the whole.
The thing is, you can tell if a writer has turned into a tool or a product, when their novel’s story is predictable, when their syntax is worn out and sounds like any other without meaning to, when there’s neither a drive for new words nor a veneration for old ones, and when that writer deliberately refuses to insert unexpected and unimagined doors on the page, but only walls—The Wall of a prefabricated and revoltingly predictable reality. When someone has power of imagination and refuses to use that power, you feel an emptiness when you close the book, an emptiness that is cunningly and immediately filled with advertising and the biopolitical manipulation of algorithms.
I defend the literary experience as an empty dance floor, surrounded by all those who have come to the party: all you need are two or three individuals to go out and start moving with joy for it to fill up with wild people and moves as dangerous as they are familiar.
WV: Spiritual Choreographies has a unique structure, alternating between trance-like poetic fragments and more conventional narrative set pieces. The former—narrated by the paraplegic former-vocalist of a famous rock band—assert the rules of the choreography and establish the cadence of the prose and the book’s narrative and lyrical motifs. The latter—the majority entitled “Correction” and numbered (with several repetitions and one central interruption) counting down 13 to 0 and back up to 2”— sketch, from multiple perspectives, the story of the band and its members.
Without ruining the game or revealing the code, can you talk about where this structure came from and what it is trying to do?
CL: Yes. Spiritual Choreographies is a countdown. The narrator is paraplegic and, as his vital signs wane, his recollections start to emerge, despite the efforts of the rest of his bandmates to rewrite them, correct them, in the form of a more-or-less-predictable story for a memoir. In terms of the countdown, this novel is part of a long tradition that includes In Search of Lost Time, Tender Buttons, To the Lighthouse, As I Lay Dying, Pedro Páramo, By Night in Chile, among many others.
In the middle, the countdown is suspended, and momentarily gives way to a children’s story that is actually a political fable about democracy. At moment zero of the novel, it’s not death that comes but a living afterlife, which is communal existence. In other words, the countdown of Spiritual Choreographies, unlike those classic examples of our collapsed Western Civilization, doesn’t descend from the zenith of the prosperous life of an educated and well-to-do white man down to the zero of old age and death, but from the alienation of an urban indigenous boy, stripped of his ancestral traditions and lands, down to the moment when he finds not only The Band, his bandmates, but the three-way intimate relationship and the child born of that relationship, which is to say: his community.
After that zero it doesn’t matter if you’re alive or dead, because your existence has been impregnated and dissolves into the world that all future members of that community will live in. What happens is, I think, if numbers govern us and try to turn us into 1 and nothing more than 1 or 0, in my books I try, at least, to remove that 1 and 0 from the order of accumulation and show how each breath, moan, scream is both 1 and 0, but they are not opposed, rather they are accumulated and shared.
WV: I was reading an interview with the great Argentine writer Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill (better known simply as Fogwill) where he talks about having little interest in narrating event(s) in his fiction, rather, he sets out to make something happen between the reader and the text. I know “make something happen” is pretty vague, but I feel like it is a fruitful idea when it comes to thinking about plot, about what plot is conventionally and what plot might be, and about what you are doing with plot in your work.
How do you think about plot and event, about cause and effect, and how does that play out in Spiritual Choreographies? What do you hope might happen between the text and the reader? How much do you think about that?
CL: I read your question and for a second, having lived an Anglo reality inside a Latin American body for a long time now, I do a double-take on what I thought was a misperception: in this case, the name Fogwill, that secret and, at the same time, ultra-famous Argentine author whose work has fallen victim to the moral bankruptcy of the white male writers of his generation, like Marías, Bolaño, and Vila-Matas. For a moment, I read Fog and I read Will, and I thought I had the perfect answer to your question: I believe there does exist a plot and a logic to all things, but to reach that logic, that true truth, we have to know how to pass through the fog, the Fog of the discourse of the commercial persuasion of souls, of self-marketing and self-advertising—of the capitalism that wants, in the end, to turn everything into profit relations—through a constant force of will, a Will to read beyond the obvious.
In that sense, I ascribe to the Romantic Movement that arose parallel to the Industrial Revolution: there is a connection, a correspondence between all things and everything is significant, but only if we are able to read with astuteness and with solidarity when everything is use, abuse, and means of production, with solidarity and with love, because these last two remaining social wills are what can provide us sufficient, inexhaustible, energy to see through the fog of endless work and alt-facts and the operations of public relations. Of course, Fogwill knew all about this and so that was the name he put on all his work, which has been able to escape that bankruptcy and those manipulations, because his imagination for positing possible relationships of love and solidarity is indomitable.
WV: In a review of your previous novel, Piezas secretas contra el mundo, José Martínez Rubio wrote, “To read [Labbé] isn’t to unpack some meaning, but to construct one; to conjure memory, longing, fear, what is and what isn’t, in a single jagged and apparently schizophrenic discourse.”
Is that how you hope readers will experience Spiritual Choreographies and to what extent do you hope the literary experience of reading the text will run parallel to that of writing it?
CL: You know, it’s always seemed to me that unintelligibility and opacity in literature are not a value, but a way of talking about the lack of musical pleasure. Reality seems unintelligible and fragmented, but we confront it every day through a drive and a desire to live well—this is the score of our mind—that allows us to interweave those fragments into a coherent and fascinating whole, what we call consciousness.
I think the time has come to read literature with the same openness and sensuality with which we listen to music: with the whole body, without prejudices, as an experience and not so much as a search for information. In the present moment, a door is set before the reader and we tell them: this is the door to the most urgent news, to social realism, please enter this book here; this is the door to the biographical myth of a cursed writer, please enter this book here; this is the door to pure, high-brow aesthetic appreciation, only for minds trained in such refinement, please enter here.
But no. The music of literature is for all people. When Borderlands/La frontera, The Waves, or Just Above My Head are discussed, we tend first to talk about how we need to reach an agreement among ourselves as readers regarding the code with which we will read those novels. But when millions of copies of albums like Alien Observer, La Bala, or The ArchAndroid are celebrated and sold, the contents are only discussed after we celebratorially accept that their rhythms, melodies, and harmonies already blew our minds. My novels, starting with Spiritual Choreographies, are first and foremost written music.
WV: A lot gets made—maybe especially in the U.S.—of the notion that fiction requires fully-developed, well-rounded, believable characters, and that readers want to identify with or like them. I think this is especially true in more mainstream literary fiction. In a previous interview you said, “I like all my characters to have various identities.” Not that these ways of thinking about character are necessarily at odds, or mutually exclusive, but it’s clear that traditional character development is not something you are particularly concerned with.
In Spiritual Choreographies, the characters aren’t given names beyond general designations like “he” and “she” and “the other” or functional ones based on their role in the band like “the vocalist” and “the guitarist” and “the percussionist”; and their backstories and relationships emerge obliquely or contingently. Can you talk about your ideas regarding character and identity and how they play out in this novel?
CL: As a person whose primary belief is in literature, I believe in everything. Which is to say, I believe in every book I read. So, by formation, I am a pantheist and, as a result, the belief in everything includes the belief in nothing. For that reason, I’m aware that how characters are constructed in a fiction is always an assertion about an idea of the other, the Other, and about Otherness in the society where that fiction is made. In a fascist world, like the one the entire planet is living in today, there is an abundance of praise for constructing consistent, multidimensional, affective characters who provoke identification in the one who reads or watches on the screen. The key is to realize that the line between our consciousness and fictitious representations of human beings is not linear, but an unpredictable refraction of comings and goings.
For me, in my novels and stories, the literary character has to be a screen for that transference. And the transference is the metamorphosis of what the one who reads and the one who has written—and the one who has translated—perceives, a transaction of their desire, of their idea of past and future with respect to what has been narrated. The problem when a novel presents me with a round, deep, and life-like character, is that the space between my subjectivity and that of the one who has written has been entirely filled with a model of fixed, preestablished reality, without possibility of crossover or fusion or sexualization of the literary act. I use different models of character in different chapters, from ones with psychological depth who create identification with the reader, to the caricature of the character itself, and to the Kafka-ization of the name, with just initials or gender, and even with impressionistic, fragmented constructs, among other avant-garde tools, to equalize different close-ups or zoom-outs between the character and the reader. What I seek is to establish a lasting and balanced perception for everyone who participates; I offer an unusual perception of Otherness through a permanent dissolving of the prejudice that attempts to establish itself and interject ideas about this or that image of a person when the position of this or that person becomes fixed, comfortable, predictable.
Besides, all of us live at least three realities of perception of the other: the well-rounded fantasy of good nineteenth-century living, the flat day-to-day nature of work and digital communication, and the metamorphic reality of our dreams. So, why should I restrict myself to one type of character, if what I want is to achieve the greatest possible amplitude of vitality?
WV: Reading (and translating) your fiction, I get the sense that shifting identities, polyvocality, complex narrative structures, and subversion of genre are part of a project at once literary, philosophical, and political, a project that resists transparency and seeks to decenter the individual, to unfix concepts both narrative and linguistic, to destabilize modes of power. In Spiritual Choreographies, the political reality has shifted or, at least, the signs used to designate its parameters are reframed in different moments. And, like the best science fiction, the book doesn’t bother to explain, at least not in any direct way, how we got/get from here to there.
In a previous interview you said, “politics is the art of reaching an agreement, and that’s what I seek, that all those disparate voices, in their conversation, construct something homogenous.” In what ways does this idea play out in both the form and content of Spiritual Choreographies?
CL: Ay, you’re going to make me talk about political contingency and with that I will totally lose my writerly aura. Because, as I was talking about with a writer/translator friend a few days ago, what can you add, what can you say, what can you write in the face of the complex and dense web, the discourse of deceit with which Trump and Putin and Bolsonaro and Macri and Piñera and Erdogan and Netanyahu have constructed the reality in which we live?
And yet, who if not writers can decode that web of lies?
When people say my novels are opaque, or dystopic, or overstuffed with symbols, I respond Christianly: is not true, perhaps, that the greatest trick those devils ever played was to make us believe they don’t exist? Is not true, perhaps, that the idea of transparency—that we live in a just and humanitarian society, or that, in daily life, nothing is symbolic but random and illegible—is what has unempowered us to the point where we couldn’t see the signs that led us to be governed by these autocrats? Are we going to stop dancing and rising up with the music, are we going to let them break our Spiritual Choreographies and leave the dancing to professional performers just because we no longer believe in the spirit?
WV: Diamela Eltit talks about thinking of literature “as a thing that can defend itself, of signs as things that can alter the logic of utilitarian language.” To what extent does your fiction in general and Spiritual Choreographies in particular try to shift and/or defy the logic of the functional ways language is used to construct meaning?
CL: Diamela Eltit, like Margaret Atwood or Olga Tokarczuk or Doris Lessing or Cristina Rivera Garza or Lyudmila Ulitskaya or Ursula Andkjær Olsen or Alice Walker or Can Xue or María Moreno or Elfriede Jelinek, among many other women, are our greatest writers, the intellectual beacons of our time. From out of the moral and ideological bankruptcy of the Vargas Llosas, the Houllebecqs, the Murakamis, or the Austers, some of us younger male writers have learned to take a step back and are learning to be quiet, to listen, to be generous companions to our most brilliant female colleagues, and, along with them, to create texts that can defend themselves, that in formal and narrative terms are unique and undeniable, and, at the same time, we are learning that never, never again, should an intellectual be alone, but, rather, he or she of they should put his or her their imagination into the fierce and indomitable service of his or her or their community. Even if that community doesn’t yet exist, if that community has negated you: if you aren’t speaking to someone, you shouldn’t speak at all.
This novel of mine considers an issue that is urgent in our time: how to construct a family if family appears to be a conservative unit of well-known dimensions, and, at the same time, family is also a rock band, a polyamorous trio that decides to have a child, animals and humans who decide to coexist harmoniously as mutual pets, and a nurse who cares for one or various sick people. My book speaks of all these social nuclei, and puts all of them onstage because they are all realities already. We can’t keep giving ourselves the luxury of individualist melancholy or broken nostalgia for the 1950s family as our only obsessive mainstream stories, because these are precisely the roads that have led us to our present socioeconomic ruin. There has to be a different social aspiration. And I put forth a few possibilities. Even if someone who reads this novel has the privilege of living free of material want and in harmony with their environment, that person must discover a novel of their own, a choreography that resonates inside them and that isn’t Balzac or Franzen, a new story that allows them to savor, in a spiritual sense, their own comfort while still being aware that billions of other people don’t have such privilege.
The contemporary novel is the only place where we can still explore new social forms in a joyful way, with neither guilt nor prescriptions.
Carlos Labbé’s Spiritual Choreographies, translated by Will Vanderhyden, is out May 21, 2019, on Open Letter.