April 2007

Drew Nellins

fiction

The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas

The Speed of Light, Javier Cercas’s sixth book -- his fourth to be printed in the United States -- is one of those very rare novels that dares take on a novelist as its protagonist. If, by some bizarre chance, that incredible peculiarity doesn’t draw you in, the book’s unnamed narrator is obviously intended to be read as a thinly-veiled version of the author himself. Bet you’ve never seen that before.

It’s the late 1980s, and the Spanish narrator is teaching at the University of Illinois (where, the book jacket subtly informs us, the Spanish Cercas actually taught in the late 1980s). The stage is set to be un-dazzled. Then -- this is the really wild part -- the book grows expansive in its scope and then narrows its focus and somehow turns out to be a strong piece of fiction and a damn good read in spite of (and largely due to) its plentiful imperfections.

During his time in the American Midwest, the protagonist writer begins a friendship with his officemate, campus outcast Rodney Falk. After Rodney disappears in the midst of a nervous breakdown, the writer learns just enough about his friend’s history in the Vietnam War to keep him speculating and pursuing answers long after he returns to Spain. Though the two are separated, first by an ocean and then by 14 years without contact, the writer cannot let go of Rodney’s story -- or tell it properly, he feels -- until all the blanks have been filled.

The Speed of Light is not a simple book. The short list of its themes include the tenacity of memory, personal obsession, artistic failure and success, the inability of humans to fully know one another, and the limits of storytelling itself.

To complicate things further, Cercas writes some of the most complex sentences this side of Henry James. The more one reads, the longer the sentences seem to grow. Though his style is almost always fluid and readable, Cercas exhibits a near pathological reluctance to write a three word sentence. I was reminded on occasion of those writers who have learned never to employ passive, “to be” verbs, a rule which they follow mercilessly, even when it would be far better to say that something merely “was” or “is.”

The book has a wonderful, first draft quality, as if dashed off quickly, with far more regard for the story itself than for the telling. Cercas is wise to address this issue head-on in a conversation between the protagonist and Rodney. “You writers sure like your pretty phrases,” says Rodney. “There’s a few in your last book. Real pretty. So pretty they almost seem true. But, of course, they’re not true, they’re just pretty. The funny thing is that you still haven’t learned that writing well is the opposite of writing pretty phrases. No pretty phrase is capable of expressing truth.”

One of the most winning qualities of the book is the way in which Cercas appears to take his character’s criticism and apply it to his own text. He is not trying here to tell a pretty story, but rather a true one. Keeping this aim in mind, I found it easy to forgive his baroque sentences, the occasional clichés that pepper his writing, and the hackneyed, writer-as-subject set up. In the midst of his unpretty phrases, Cercas manages enviable precision in distilling subtle ideas. Many examples are buried in a collection of letters Rodney sent home from Vietnam years earlier. Others are the result of the brutal self-examination to which the narrator subjects himself.

In one instance he rebukes the change in his own character following the unexpected success of his third novel: “I know there is a kind of inverse vanity in someone who torments himself with blame for disgraces he hasn’t committed, and I don’t want to make that mistake but I can’t help suspecting that those late-night alcoholic confidences functioned between Marcos and me as a periodic and subliminal reminder of my victories...”

I’d quote the entire sentence, but it goes on for another eight lines, each imperfect in exactly the right way.

Having overcome my knee-jerk misgivings, The Speed of Light serves as a pleasant reminder of that wonderful middle ground that still lies between hyper-stylized, workshopped-to-death, assembly line novels and the pure literary schlock that’s getting printed faster than... well, faster than The Speed of Light.

The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 1596912146
288 Pages