7 December, 2009Issue 10.5FictionLiterature

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The Many Faces of Tomorrow

Elliot Berger

foerJavier Marías
Poison, Shadow, and Farewell
Norton, 2009
480 Pages
ISBN 978-0811218122

A cartographer mapping Poison, Shadow, and Farewell, the final installment of Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, would find himself asking for ever-increasing quantities of ink and paper to keep up with the novel’s constantly proliferating references and allegories. What Marías has accomplished in Your Face Tomorrow propels him into rarified literary space: philosophic discourses, paragraph-length sentences, and recurrent themes bridge its more that 1,200 pages with fluidity and grace. Taken as a whole, Marias’s project is similar in breadth and quality to works like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.

Yet Marías’s work differs from that of arch-experimentalists like Joyce and Bolaño in important ways. Where Joyce and Bolaño employ multiple narrative voices, Marías uses a single narrator, to equally encompassing effect. This trilogy, which also includes Fever and Spear and Dance and Dream and has connections to Marías’s earlier novel All Souls, is at its base a treatise on the ambiguities of personal agency. Each of the novels in Your Face Tomorrow experiments with the limits of volition and ethical action. In this finale, Marías finally imposes the weight of these questions on his hero, Jack Deza, forcing him into action with or without a determinable will.

Although fictional, many of Marías’s characters are vaguely autobiographical. Principle among these are his father and a friend named Sir Peter Russell (who is frequently represented as Peter Wheeler), as well as the author’s own alter egos, who often appear as translators. In Poison, Marías’s protagonist begins as a translator with the BBC before being recruited for a special wing of the British secret service. There, he befriends his mysterious and dangerous boss, Tupra, and brushes shoulders with criminals and celebrities. These seemingly innocuous plot twists can sometimes take hundreds of pages to unfold, often without ever being stated explicitly. It is in such winding passages that Marías is at his best; he has the remarkable ability to describe and not describe at the same time, illuminating his subject while also casting it deeper into the shadows. For Marías, content follows form.

This style serves Marías well as he explores agency’s limits. Marías tests the boundaries between selves and others by giving his characters multiple names (Jack Deza, for instance, goes by Jaime, Jacobo, Jacques, and Iago). He builds the novel around Deza’s unusual ability to look into the hearts and minds of others, to read their disposition—in short, to see their face tomorrow. Deza is not able to do the same for himself, however, a fact he discovers only after reading a report written about him by the British secret service.

While such themes echo the first two volumes of the trilogy, Poison, Shadow, and Farwell shifts focus from their almost diary-like form to a more plot-driven narrative. After moving to London to accommodate the wishes of his ex-wife, Luisa, Deza returns to his native city, Madrid, to discover that she has fallen for an abusive man named Custardoy. He must choose whether to intervene on her behalf, a decision based entirely on intuition and sketchy detail, and one which foregrounds his search for volition. In the end, it is an ambiguous form of fate, rather than morality, that keeps him from seeking final vengeance on his wife’s abuser:

What I had absorbed less well, or simply didn’t know, was that what one does or does not do depends not just on time, temptation and circumstance, but on silly ridiculous things, on random superfluous thoughts, on doubt or caprice or some stupid fit of feeling, on untimely associations and on one-eyed oblivion or fickle memories, on the words that condemn you or the gesture that saves you.

For Marías, questions of individual agency are mired not only in circumstance, but also in the arbitrariness of human emotions. In another scene, for instance, Deza gazes raptly at a widening tear (first introduced in volume two) in the stocking of a young colleague, Perez Nuix. He wants to act, but falters:

During those moments when she seemed distracted, almost resigned, I again glanced at the run in her stockings, at her even more naked leg. I hoped she would do something before her tights exploded (that would be a shock) or went all baggy and loose (that would be repellent) or suddenly dropped to the floor (that would be humiliating), none of these three possibilities appealed to me, but they would break the spell of that torn but still taut fabric.

Deza finally alerts her to the problem, which she had noticed and tried to ignore. Again, action and inaction intertwine; there is nothing that does not posit the riddle of volition.

It is a riddle that Marías answers with more questions and a slew of differentiated answers. Whereas the first two volumes of Your Face Tomorrow end with partially formulated and then abandoned questions (such as the nature of Deza’s intimate relationship with Pérez Nuix), the third volume seems to have been reserved for working out the details of Deza’s story. That Poison, Shadow, and Farewell is more plot-driven than either of the others is, in the end, both exciting and slightly disappointing. None of Marías’s answers provides the reader with truly firm footing, but what happens to Deza is less interesting than who he is and how he thinks. Ultimately, Marías’s attempt at a neat ending is at odds with the construction of his novel.

Despite his turn to plot, then, Marías shines where he always has. He suspends questions of agency while at the same time leaving the reader satisfied with the result. This narrative tactic lends the work its uniquely multi-dimensional flavor, and illustrates Marías’s greatest strength: his ability to tie his subjects together, no matter how disparate they appear.

This strength comes through most clearly when we read the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy as a single novel. It is an astounding work, one which has garnered much praise from other writers and which is likely to yield something sublime on any page. Marías withholds easy answers to the many questions he raises, transforming ambiguity into the objective itself.

Elliot Berger is a master’s student at the University of Toronto. He specializes in the psychology of religion.