Choose, in the imperative (Carlos Labbé's Loquela)

You are reading the Chilean novelist Carlos Labbé.

According to the blurb on the front of Navidad and Matanza—his first book translated into English—he “begins to fuck with your head from the first page.” On the cover of Loquela, his second, you will read that Labbé “wreaks havoc on narrative rules from the start and keeps doing it.”

How will you proceed?

You must choose.

One way to navigate these novels would be to think of this novel as part of the European avant-garde tradition. According to some of the blurbs, Labbé is “a literary descendent of Roberto Bolaño and Andrés Neuman” and also “a hybrid of Julio Cortázar and Paul Auster.” And sure, why not? But blurb writers love using these kinds of genealogies to create a sense of coherence for writers whose work leaves us grasping at straws, whose work is—exactly in this way—to leave us grasping with empty hands. Does it help to frame Labbé as the descendent of two Latin American writers who lived most of their lives in Spain, a relative of the Argentine author whose most famous novel was set and written in France, and of the author of a New York trilogy who became a writer in Paris.

To these names, we could also add the OuLiPo movement—writers like Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, and Raymond Queneau—and we must not forget Roland Barthes, the author of the “death of the author,” and of The Lover’s Discourse, from which Labbé’s title can be derived. And perhaps the fact that he “begins to fuck with your head” expresses very crudely what Barthes called the “emphatic form of the lover’s discourse,” Loquela, “the flux of language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequences of an action.”

You can choose to link him to the European avant garde, then. And it doesn’t hurt that Loquela also rhymes with Cortázar’s Rayuela (in English, Hopscotch), or that, like Cortázar, Labbé wants to chart a new path through literature. We might note that Labbé’s first novel was a hypertext-fiction, Pentagonal: incluidos tú y yo (2001).

Click that link, if you choose to.

It’s the sort of book Cortázar might have written, had he the generational opportunity. And even if you don’t read Spanish, you may still be reminded of the Choose Your Own Adventure genre of children’s gamebook, or a book like Goosebumps. Children read these books, of course, without knowing that Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1964) and Raymond Queneau’s “A story as you like it” (1967) first opened the door to turning stories into games in the 1970’s; to enjoy those books, you don’t need to know how the OuLiPo sought to widen and broaden the potential for literature. You can just play, without thinking about how, at the same time that books were became games in the 1970’s, computers were making games into stories: before 1973, or so, computer games were mostly non-textual, play rather than narrative; after 1973, the distinction was moot.

Click that link, if you like; I’ll wait.

When you read Carlos Labbé, you have to choose (Something his next novel, Piezas secretas contra el mundo, makes even more explicit). Like video games, you cannot sit passively; you must play.

Are you interested in his “experiments” in literary form? Are you interested in the long tradition of writers who break the realist novel down into its component parts and then reconstruct the house of fiction from new foundations? If this is what interests you, then Labbé offers a garden of forking paths. His novels are experimental fiction, striving to do things with narrative that have never been done before. New game require that you learn how to play; his novels force you learn, anew, how to read.

On the other hand, other things happened in 1973, rather important things. And as you read Navidad & Matanza (or “Christmas and Killing”), the phrase “Chile as laboratory for neoliberalism” may drift across your mind; as you read this story-within-a-story of writers writing under the influence of a hate-drug—concocted, perhaps, by economists from the University of Chicago—you might start to think about the kinds of paranoia that get produced by out-in-the-open economic conspiracies. You might see Labbé’s project as having less in common with a European avant-garde, and instead place him next to a writer like the Argentine Ricardo Piglia, whose newest novel, Target in the Night, describes “a new kind of detective novel,” a paranoid fiction, in which “Everyone is a suspect, everyone feels persecuted.” In these paranoid fictions from the southern cone, “The criminal is no longer an isolated individual, but rather a member of a group who has absolute power.”

You could even compare Labbé to another post-dictatorial Chilean writer: in Alejandra Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, for example, there’s a slow reveal of what might be at the root of middle-class Chilean family comfort, a discovery of complicity wrapped in the warmth of family. Of course, Labbé and Zambra are superficially very different writers; Zambra’s transparent realism translates with an ease that recalls Haruki Murakami, metafiction so gentle you almost don’t notice that it is; Labbé just fucks with you. But you must be paranoid enough to read beneath the surface of the prose: both search for a lost child in the aftershocks of neoliberal authoritarianism, writing the traumas of cyclical narratives in the cyclical narratives of trauma.

You could also just read Loquela.

At the start, a writer named Carlos decides that he does not want to write a detective novel: instead, he declares, he wants to write a mystery. And so, as with Navidad and Matanza, you find yourself reading a detective story wrapped in a metafiction about a writer trying to write about a detective, and the real mystery turns out to be whether the writer is inventing the story or if the story is what makes him write. In both novels, Carlos Labbé makes an appearance; in both, you may find the novel difficult going, and may get lost between what is happening in the novel and what is supposed to be happening in the novel; you may find yourself wondering what you’re missing or how you’re supposed to be reading towards finding those missing things (or if you are). When you realize the narrator’s obsession with Juan Carlos Onetti, you will wonder if that means you need to familiarize yourself with his work.

How charmed are you by narrative recursions and tautology? What was novel for Cortázar in 1967 might have become a dead-end; as choices branch out, perhaps they hem you in. Indeed, while Barthes invoked the “death of the author” as the “birth of the reader,” Michel Foucault retort was that the author’s death also makes him more powerful: after all, is there room for the reader in a novel whose protagonist is the author himself? Sometimes choice is not freedom, as the 1970’s spurred a variety of thinkers to reflect. And if OuLiPo explored the freedoms made possible by constraint, then perhaps Labbé’s work discovers some the constraint of freedom: to liberate the reader to read the story as you like it—to choose your own adventure—leaves you all the more dependent on the whims of the author, accumulating reading lists of his favorite books. You must choose:

Do you read this novel? Or do you read Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse instead?

Do you read this novel? Or do you read the complete works of Juan Carlos Onetti, first?

Do you read this novel? Or do you read an interview with Labbé, in which he describes his philosophy of writing:

“for me it's about reflecting on the political, emotional and metaphysical implications of choosing, describing and narrating worlds from an orderly or maybe chaotic perspective, or through a hidden system that would give meaning to the constant crisis of daily life in our time. When we read, are we looking for reassurance, a reaffirmation of conventional and harmless life, or are we looking for a new experience, a meaning?

You must choose. You must choose. You must choose.

Or maybe you don’t need to. Maybe it isn’t about choice at all, and maybe this is the point: no matter what you choose, you’re still in the same novel. Maybe choice is the trap.

In a reading and discussion at Diesel Books in Oakland a few months ago, Labbé explained that he began writing the novel that would become Loquela when he was still at university, in 1995: he was trying to become a writer by writing his favorite genre of fiction, a detective story.

It wasn’t a very good novel—he wasn’t yet a very good writer—and that novel still isn’t. The fossil of that novel is still to be found in this one, in fact. Much of it—I suspect—is unchanged.

But it wasn’t a mystery, he realized, because it was a detective story, because the genre told you the ending. So, he added a second voice, the voice of the frustrated writer struggling to write the novel, struggling to find mystery in a detective novel. He gives away the ending on page one—in the first paragraph—to make it clear that everyone but the writer knows where the story is going. He makes the writer the last to know that he, himself, was the killer.

But in the illusion of choice, are the writer and reader still complicit in the murder?

And so, he added one more voice: the victim. Her voice completes the novel, if only by tearing it apart; her voice is the wound that keeps the novel bleeding; her voice is the second-person address—to “you”—that makes you complicit in the dead words of a dead person written in a dead letter; hers is the voice that, as it turns out, cannot choose. And this, the novel gives you no choice but to read, is the consequence of your choice.