:: Article

The Runaway Combinatorics of Mac’s Problem

By Bailey Trela.

Enrique Vila-Matas, Mac’s Problem, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes (New Directions, 2019)

The Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas is the master of the modern florilegium. The prime appeal of his books—moody, wistful compendia of literary and art-historical anecdotes strung with abandon along his narrators’ freewheeling consciousnesses—lies in their relaxed and playful refracting of postmodern topoi. Like intrepid private eyes trapped in rarefied detective stories, his characters track down the evasive sources of their sorrows, all the while theorizing offhandedly about the nature of fiction and the relationship between reader and writer.

This basic structure can make Vila-Matas’s books prone to bagginess; if you’re not excited about the particular quote or anecdote he’s dwelling on at a given moment, long stretches of his books can strike you as directionless and dull. It’s a problem common to the discursive, associative, narrator-centric type of fiction that’s so abundant today, but Vila-Matas hasn’t really show an inclination to change his style—in fact, he seems to be leaning in. Though his career began in the 70s and 80s with a series of lightsome Borgesian romps, he came to prominence in English only at the turn of the millennium with his novel Bartleby & Co., which at the same time solidified his novel-writing formula.

In your standard Vila-Matas outing, a relatively humble, aloofly outcast narrator takes the reader on a tour of a certain subset of literature, culling quotes and anecdotes from a wide variety of texts, while the framing narrative is tinged by some thematic cornerstone relevant to the chosen texts. Bartleby & Co., for instance, follows a mildly aggrieved clerk as he reviews the literature of so-called “artists of refusal,” including Robert Walser, J.D. Salinger, and Herman Melville. The latest addition to his idiosyncratic oeuvre, Mac’s Problem, largely fits this mold, but is one of his looser endeavors. It’s similar in some ways to 2014’s The Illogic of Kassel, but whereas that book was aerated by travel and movement—set in the titular German city during the documenta festival, the book traces its narrator’s wanderings between various abstruse exhibits and avant-garde performances—Mac’s Problem lacks a similar mechanism that might salvage its narrator’s self-involvement.

The book’s set-up is fairly simple. Mac Vives, a bemused bibliophile, has recently lost his construction business, and in his now bountiful free time undertakes the writing of a diary, his first literary venture. Eventually, refining his focus, he decides to completely rewrite a novel that his friend Ander Sánchez had published many years before. That novel—Walter’s Problem—is a baroque confection consisting of a ventriloquist’s attempt to discover new voices for his act by writing ten short stories in the style of masters of the form like Cheever, Hemingway, and Carver. As Mac’s Problem progresses and Mac leans into his task, delivering cryptic close-readings of Sánchez’s stories, Vila-Matas gets to indulge one of his favorite thematic hobbyhorses—the imbrication of the real and the read. Mac studiously parses Sánchez’s stories for hints of real-life events, and in his free-associative analyses finds opportunities to reflect on his own life; the bulk of Mac’s Problem is concerned with the filiations, both fictional and real, of Sánchez’s reinterpreted text.

Although the book at times has the feel of a syllabus masquerading as a novel, there’s legitimate pleasure and insight to be gleaned from Vila-Matas’s treasure trove of trivia. In his frisbeeing back and forth between plot and anecdote, Mac digresses, for instance, into Philip Roth’s meeting with an ailing Bernard Malamud at the latter’s reclusive homestead in Bennington, Vermont; he dwells on two fictionalized versions of the ancient poet Petronius, one from the 1895 novel Quo Vadis by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, and one by the French proto-fabulist Marcel Schwob; and he pauses for a brief close-reading of Citizen Kane that excoriates the film’s fragmentary narrative structure. Besides being gratifying in their own right, these allusions serve an important structural role. Vila-Matas’s characters are constantly in the process of dredging up literary precedents for their thoughts and actions; the constellations of facts and quotes that spangle his texts are simply there to assist his narrators in their limning of particular, refined sadnesses. It’s in knocking their heads against these fragments of wisdom that they learn about themselves—in essence, it’s allusion as diagnosis.

While all of these diversions are connected to Vila-Matas’s putative themes, it’s the foray into Malamud, where Mac confesses to being fascinated by Malamud’s fundamental “grayness,” that generates one of the book’s more interesting meditations. Mac’s alignment with mutedness isn’t shocking—what with his milksoppy attempts to investigate his wife’s suspected infidelity with Sánchez and his milquetoast musings on the nature of novel-writing, Mac seems the patron saint of ciphers everywhere, a sure fit in Vila-Matas’s roster of self-effacing protagonists. In fact, part of the novel’s arc derives from Mac’s attempt to escape his constitutional glumness, his sense of being “always marooned on the gray plains of the quotidian,” by means of his diary-writing.

Vila-Matas’s prose in Mac’s Problem is, fittingly, a little glummer than usual, lacking some of his typical elegance, but at times it assumes a querulous, clerk-like texture that’s beyond even the syntactic strait-lacedness appropriate to a lawyer-cum-contractor. When Mac, after revealing he’s been lying to us about his construction business and was in actuality a lawyer, begins to explain his reasons for taking up diary-writing, the passage has the feel of a tedious accounting:

I had the vague hope that it might help put at least a modicum of that great humiliation behind me. And I was fairly confident that the journal would help me to do just that. It was a matter of untangling, as far as possible, and by means of this discreet apprenticeship in writing, the knotty core of my shame and mortification, my rage at the disgraceful manner in which they threw me out on the street, the scandal of my paltry severance payment, and the shock of finding myself, quite suddenly, with nothing, not even a stern, phlegmatic goodbye from one of my colleagues.

The comparatively staid unfolding of this list of grievances never quite rises to the pitch of a “great humiliation”; it feels less like the outpouring of an aggrieved firee than an author’s careful laying-out of motivations.

For a good chunk of the book, it seems that glumness might be the text’s main mode, but when we learn halfway through Mac’s Problem that Mac wasn’t really a construction business owner—that he was, in fact, a lawyer suddenly laid off, too ashamed to admit it, even to himself—a great fraying occurs. Flaws and inconsistencies appear in the text as the boundaries between Sánchez’s stories, Mac’s rewrites, and reality itself blur and interblend. Having set up his chess pieces, Vila-Matas barrels into the endgame, delighting as the story’s incidentals go caroming off of one another with the bright rapidity of pinballs.

Strange laws of connection, unique to Vila-Matas’s self-contained universe, seem to govern the plot. Plot devices and motifs—like a Javan sunshade meant to be used as a murder weapon in Walter’s Problem—puncture some of the stories, shoving themselves rudely into new contexts, while drifting epigraphs reassign themselves at whim, lighting above new stories like fickle sparrows. Various arcs of the plot go jetting off senselessly like sparks, burning out and disappearing; it’s as though the story has reached a critical activation point, and has begun writing itself.

As the book unravels, images of flight and escape gradually begin to dominate the text. Mac dwells on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s creation Wakefield, who walks out on his family one day and spends twenty years living just down the road. Schwob’s Petronius effects a similarly fantastic leave-taking, deciding to run away from the emperor Nero’s death sentence and enact, with the aid of his slave Syrus, the swashbuckling adventure stories he’d been writing on the side. Schwob’s story ends with a liberating summa, one that presages Mac’s own fate: “While living out the life he had imagined, Petronius completely forgot about the art of writing.”

Vila-Matas’s recent works have tended to center around a few central conceits—a location, a literary figure, and even occasionally a particular rhetorical device or conceptual lodestar. For Mac’s Problem he’s chosen the concept of repetition, stippling the book with his own ruminations on the subject, and quotes from figures like Kierkegaard. At one point in the novel, after writing out on a sheet of paper the name “Wakefield” thirty times, Mac scribbles above each of these iterations the phrase “He Who Absents Himself,” blurring and obscuring both sets of words, culminating in a somber pensée:

The apotheosis of repetition. Words written on words written on top of more words. It’s begun to look like the work of performance artist Tim Youd, who types up classic novels on a typewriter, but without ever changing the sheet of paper, so the transcription of the novel ends up as “a sheet of paper saturated with ink.”

There’s a vaguely nihilistic drive behind this writing and rewriting, the layering of texts until all is senseless, hopelessly intermixed. For Mac, repetition becomes a means of erasure, of the gradual blocking-out of a prior story. Unfortunately, for much of the novel, these theoretical outbursts aren’t convincingly tied to the text’s emotional armature, to Mac’s feelings of being adrift; they remain sterile sketches barely felt, levitating on the page. You get the feeling, reading the above quote, that Vila-Matas simply can’t contain himself, that after penning the first two lines, the parallel to a contemporary artist popped into his head and was hastily shoehorned in—never mind that it requires a longer, expository syntax that’s at odds with the mutedness just established.

Vila-Matas’s interest in repetition even wheedles its way into the book’s cast of characters. At one point in the novel, the narrator, walking along the Calle de Londres, is called out to by a vagabond named Harpo, which sets him thinking about “the existence of other beings who resemble you, but are not you”:

I’ve always had trouble being confronted by the sight of a person similar to me but not me—that is, the same idea contained in another body, someone identical to me and yet different. I’ve always found that very hard, because on those occasions—it still happens to me now—I feel what Gombrowicz described as a “painful splitting in two.” Painful because it transforms me into an unbounded being, whom even I can’t predict; all my possibilities multiplied by that strange new and yet identical force suddenly approaching me, as if I were approaching myself from the outside.

Here Vila-Matas’s prose does its job admirably; with its thoughtful clarifications and allusive parenthetical phrases, the passage reads like a living thought, a rumination experienced in time, rather than a process choppily recalled in retrospect and interrupted with roughly transplanted allusions. Repetition, in this cozier form, is a destabilizing splitting, which opens up the possibilities of fiction. In a perfectly clerkly dream—the idea that doing the same thing over and over again might lead to release—it’s thus tied inextricably to Mac’s fantasy of escape.

It’s only at the end of Mac’s Problem, as the book dissolves into lyricism, that its emotional punches begin to land. The book’s final run commences with a section entitled “The Neighbor,” suggesting Mac is once again rewriting one of Sánchez’s short stories. Walter’s world-ramblings are co-opted by Mac’s dreams of flight; the final pages follow an imagined escape executed by an increasingly porous Mac. The strength of this section is its cozy inhabiting of melancholy pastiche, Vila-Matas’s expertise. The hypothetical escape leaps from a beach in Algeciras, where the speaker rests on his way to Morocco, to Marrakech (“I had heard people talk about the voices of Marrakech, but had no idea what was so special about them”), and finally lands in Tunis, where a dreamy tone begins to cloud over the sentences: “I imagined that as I fled to the south of Tunis, among the tall palm trees of the oasis of Douz, I enlisted in the Foreign Legion and went on to see images that came from my oldest memories of action movies, or adventure books set in Africa.” In the end, just like Petronius, Mac—our steadfast if dolesome ephemerist—has escaped from, and through, fiction. In the truest sense, he’s written himself out of the text.

Bailey Trela is a writer living in Bushwick.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 12th, 2019.