Messy Human Beings: On “In the Distance with You”

These are incredibly messy human beings whose flaws are strewn across the page for us to dissect and examine ad nauseum. It’s a serious problem when what an author leaves out of a book is potentially more interesting than what is kept in. Young, fragile, fey Emilia — who has a French father who isn’t her father and a Chilean mother who is an ethereal presence shimmering at the edges of their family, ever poised to drift off — has come to Chile to work on her thesis. Why, then, is it so often the messier books, riddled with inconsistencies and never reaching logical resolutions, which capture our imagination? AUGUST 31, 2018
THERE’S NO DENYING the thrill of a well-constructed book in which plot and characters move across the page in perfect synchronicity. There is Daniel, the neighbor whose attachment to Vera seems unusually intense, even for an implied proxy mother-son relationship. […] I must have been twelve, or maybe thirteen, when I was sexually assaulted for the first time.” His marriage to Gracia, the beautiful, intelligent, and driven woman he first met when he was 16 and she 20, is in the process of splintering. And while, overall, Cullen’s style works with the text, lines like, “The house behind us, with light streaming from every window, evoked the image of a cruise ship from which we’d disembarked and which was now sailing imperturbably on” feel underserved. It is Infante who introduces Emilia to Vera’s work and facilitates her trip to Santiago, Chile. We reconstruct them with the purpose of accommodating them to our story and transforming them into something we can hoard. Very early on, she loses her focus, and Vera moves from the center to the periphery of the main action. Like Vera, Carla Guelfenbein is a Chilean novelist of Russian-Jewish descent. She focuses on giving voices to ambiguous characters, leaving her readers conflicted and feeling as if they are responding to caricatures of types. You also had a long scratch on one arm, a reddish streak that ran from your wrist to your elbow. Vera and Infante were once lovers. An 80-year-old writer is discovered unconscious in her home, her half-naked body crumpled at the foot of the stairs. “I’d never had a girlfriend, not for lack of opportunities, but because something essential in me had been shattered. This may not initially seem to be the worst line, but the underlying poetry in the imagery is sabotaged by a clunkiness at the conjuncion. It’s obvious that Guelfenbein has cast Daniel as her sympathetic, even idealized, romantic leading man. Books that, intentionally or not, invite us to stick our fingers into plot holes and probe around, and that cause us to shake our heads in frustration at the incomprehensible choices of their authors. She and Daniel meet cute outside of Vera’s hospital room. Describing Gracia, Daniel tells us that when she presses her lips together he can see “the first traces time was starting to leave on her face. Daniel has “an effect […] on other people,” which he reveals as part of a disturbing soliloquy-like confession in which he describes being sexually molested by one of his mother’s friends. Making the decision not to tell the story from Vera’s point of view is a calculated omission that means that she is defined either through the male gaze or Emilia’s projections, leaving her mythology firmly intact. But the interesting story here was always about the women. He has an affair. Your hands were curled into claws, as if they’d been scratching invisible bodies before they surrendered. The only way to spot them is to search near the sun. He convinces the local authorities to open an inquiry and, at the same time, begins his own investigation into what happened. As he searches for answers, he compulsively carries on a one-sided conversation with her, at her bedside and in his head. What ultimately carries it isn’t the plot, but the psychology of the characters. The translation is by John Cullen, a prolific translator who, in addition to Spanish, works in French, Italian and German. Other mysteries and secrets become more important. ¤
Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic and author of the blog Reader At Large. There are moments like that. So it’s important to state: everything discussed above is present in the text. In the Distance with You is told from the points of view of three different narrators (two of them men). Byatt based her entire novel Possession on unraveling a literary mystery — which, let’s be honest, is catnip to even the casual reader — Guelfenbein assigns only a passing significance to the one Emilia uncovers. Only two of the three female characters actually meet, and then only briefly. While he perceives himself as being incredibly sensitive, in reality he’s unreliable and self-absorbed. We’ve all moved on. Emilia’s chapters are filled with beautiful imagery and metaphors, many of them revolving around astronomy, her adoptive father’s discipline. S. One that, unfortunately, remains only half-told. She cannot tolerate being touched by another person, though she has a fiancé, a childhood sweetheart who is patient, supportive, and encourages her to travel to Santiago to expand her horizons. He arranges for the two to meet. She is modeled on the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (whom Guelfenbein has cited as a literary influence, along with Virginia Woolf), but could just as easily be based on any number of the 20th-century female artists — Georgia O’Keeffe, María Luisa Bombal, Agnes Martin, and Victoria and Silvina Ocampo — whose tumultuous lives and savage talent gained them cult-like followings in their lifetimes. Guelfenbein just fails to develop it. And it is his narration that provides the details of Vera’s turbulent life, at the same time cementing his own place in it. It all plays into the weird psychology present in In the Distance with You, particularly in the relationship dynamics between the male and female characters. But Daniel, the friend and neighbor who finds her, believes she was pushed. He has her cancel the anniversary party she’s been planning for weeks so he can sit vigil at Vera’s hospital bed. He currently dreams of opening his own restaurant, a dream that Gracia doesn’t support. Daniel and Emilia, in particular, feel implausible … yet inexplicably fascinating. This is our undignified introduction to Vera Sigall, the fictional Chilean writer who spends the majority of Guelfenbein’s novel in a coma. If you are expecting a tale of female empowerment, this is not it. The obvious conclusion is that she tripped and fell. Carla Guelfenbein’s In the Distance with You starts with a promising premise. Those are the ones that stay with us, that we pick apart in our book clubs, that provide the endless fodder for heated discussions with other like-minded literary obsessives. Moments that in time turn into shared fables. A pool of blood encircled your head. Emilia is another character who does not align with our expectations of a sympathetic protagonist. By the time Vera’s attacker is revealed, Daniel, along with the reader, has lost interest. His once promising career as an architect has stalled, mainly due to his own disinterest in clients rather than a lack of opportunities presenting themselves. But the more we get to know him, the harder it becomes to reconcile his image of himself with his actual behavior. The cardinal rule of book reviewing is to always review the book as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. As a result, the question put forth in the opening chapter — who pushed Vera down the stairs? After so many years, when I try to put together what happened next, I realize that the events as they occurred are distorted by the multiple versions of them that Vera and I re-created over the course of time, endowing them with subjectivity and with a patina of romanticism that they doubtless didn’t have. Mostly, though, he behaves like a pretentious ass. This is her second book to be translated into English (after winning the Premio Alfaguara de Novela, a prestigious Spanish-language literary award, in 2015). She spends her days at the Bombal Library (a possible reference to the 1930s writer María Luisa) studying their collection of Vera’s papers. After helping him further his architectural career, she watches him abandon it at the first impediment and then proceed to do nothing with his life. Barely visible stars, rapid in movement and weak in luminosity. And, like Daniel, she has experienced trauma. Infidelities, misunderstandings, betrayals, disillusionment, exotic neurosis, childhood trauma, death, and an excess of tragedy and drama for any one group of people — In the Distance with You has all the twists and turns of a long-running daytime soap condensed into a single novel. — loses all its urgency. Only Emilia is allowed to speak in her own voice, and even then her development is still dependent in part on the male gaze. He is a man who women, young and old, find irresistible. Like so much else in this book it, too, falls short of its potential. This particular translation is capable but lacks complexity. “I remembered the way my father searched for his dead stars. It’s a particularly overwrought form of amusement, to be sure, but amusing all the same. I found myself sympathizing with his wife. This isn’t the first time she’s used this type of multiple points of view format: her 2008 novel, The Rest Is Silence, employs a very similar structure. I’d never paid attention to our difference in age, nor had it seemed important. This link, between Vera and her historical counterparts, is the lure. Whereas A. I covered you as best I could with your nightgown. Vanilla prose punctuated by sudden flashes of unexpected brightness. But now, all of the sudden it was obvious.” In many ways Gracia is a tragic figure, forced into the role of villain simply because she becomes superfluous to Daniel’s arc with the introduction of Emilia. Listed among her numerous faults is her quite understandable dissatisfaction with Daniel’s lack of motivation and weakness of character. By any standard, In the Distance with You fails the Bechdel test in spectacular fashion. But though it is presented ostensibly as her story, Vera Sigall is merely the juncture at which other stories converge. Your nightgown was bunched up around your hips, and your pubis, smooth and white, showed between your open, elderly legs. The sun’s light reveals their movements.” She is searching for references to the night sky in Vera’s writing when she discovers a literary connection/communion between the writer and the celebrated Chilean poet Horacio Infante. Guelfenbein chooses, instead, to cycle through her three first-person narrators, using each of their connections to Vera as the backdrop against which their individual stories play out.