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The Novelist’s Complaint: Metafiction and Convention in “The Women I Love”

The Novelist’s Complaint: Metafiction and Convention in “The Women I Love”

​​Van Gogh’s self-portraits are among his most famous and beloved works; presidential autobiographies fly off the shelves when they inexorably appear a year out of office. For the novelist, however, no such allowances are made. A common refrain from that amorphous, ominous entity public opinion seems to be that novelists are far too interested in writing about novels—an odd complaint, one would think, given the locus of connection between fiction reader and fiction writer. Nevertheless, the author, undaunted and unabashed, plunges along and the reader, wary and weary, continues to reckon with fictionalized accounts of fictionalized creations. This brand of novel, anathema to some but with the potential to be done quite well, is displayed with a completeness rarely found in Francisco Pacifico’s latest work translated by Elizabeth Harris, The Women I Love.

The story of a poet-cum-editor, Marcello, who narrates and navigates the women in his life, The Women I Love is both an exemplar of metafiction and an impish commentary on the Americana masculinity-forward novel of mid-century. Structurally, it is divided into five chapters, each named for a different woman, before closing — in a subtle-yet-stark framing of its own male-ego-centric ethos that seems almost too pitch-perfect for 2021 — with “My Mother.” Indeed, much of the novel seems quite aware of, if not outright concerned with, making unspoken reassurances between the lines that it is in on the joke; no toxic masculinity here, no regressive élan in defense of the boys’ club, only subversion, inversion, disruption. In this way Pacifico, in his third novel, reads a bit like a modern day Philip Roth (who makes an inevitable, darting cameo appearance), one who’s been retrofitted with refreshing, twenty-first-century software updates in his awareness and sensitivity towards socio-gender questions — while losing more than a little of the raw power in prose and spiraling inventiveness in plot along the way.

There are drawbacks. The book’s conceit — from the present tense of the title to the constant self-reflexivity of the narration — feels forced at times, as the parenthetical (and, sometimes, even the bracketed sub-parenthetical) aides grow somewhat tedious as Marcello takes space to update us on his life since the time of writing or his editorial philosophy. Even his obsession with sneakers, mentioned no less than a half dozen times in the opening, relatively brief chapter alone, feels more artifice than actuality, more characterization than character. The calculated feel remains throughout, leaving the reader only to guess as to where the balance of intention falls, and to venture ahead.

As a seasoned novelist, however, Pacifico knows how to play to his strengths. When, in the long second chapter (“Barbara”), the action shifts from Milan to Rome (native, naturally, to both protagonist and author), his descriptive abilities come alive. In telling of his early days living with Barbara, his common-law wife and verbal sparring partner, Pacifico lifts the quaint Roman neighborhood in which she lives off the page with the type of narration he does best:

The yellow and gray train cars, the stone pines, the ruins of arches with the barracks underneath, the Roman castles in the background that seemed distant with the sky a thin cobweb of pink and gray, or extremely close when it was clear out; sometimes, though, the sky was sticky with spun-sugar clouds. If there was a lot of traffic early on, then I’d only feel calmer once I turned right, by the carotene’s shop, the air sweet with sawdust. That street ran along the high-speed rail line, and an abandoned mattress, worn down by the elements, was always lying in that desolate space by the tracks…Where I grew up, people were always offended when someone else was double-parked; here, you could stop the car a moment and greet someone, and not get scolded by car horns.

This is a beautiful moment, scenically, and it is in no way an outlier. Pacifico peppers his work with humor, wit, and even occasional pathos as we learn his life story. One perhaps wishes he had made the choice, at times, to shy away from his self-interruptive asides to spend more time on that physical Roman world he knows and writes so well. 

A difficult novel to make sense of, it is an interesting, amusing, and fast-flowing work, but one that perhaps never quite finds its center of gravity. By the end, the most salient point made by The Women I Love is a proof that constructing a book to refract around the negative spaces of an earlier age and of a marginal form is rather difficult. There’s an absence here, a conviction missing from the raison d’être that saps it of propulsion, unity, gravitas. A passage from that long, at times very good, second chapter, highlights in one breath both the intimate, effective voice and its distracting, wandering nature :

She started talking again. [I’d written this in dialogue, then deleted it]. She said she had to be stupid to think she could take a trip with me, but even so, she still believed in us. The way she was sitting was ridiculous, at the literal edge of her seat, and since she couldn’t grab the wheel, she was gibbing the armrest to the door, and she looked pretty strange, from what I could tell out of the corner of my eye, while I watched the road: I didn’t dare turn and look at her because that would scare her; she needed me to concentrate. I recognized the smell of her nervous sweat in the cold jet of the A/C.

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Many of the book’s best aspects are present here: the underscoring of the ordinary with the momentous, the scenic details, the light experimentation with grammar and punctuation. At the same time, the quoted passage demonstrates what will perhaps keep some readers from fully engaging (beyond the novelistic navel-gazing); this sort of quotidian banality, this extracting and examining of a moment in a life and a relationship, is at its most powerful when the daily reflects the yearly, when the themes of the book can be distilled into a few fictive seconds and made subtly representative of the whole. Here, however, the technique is often hamstrung by a somewhat unfocused and malnourished narrative construction.

This is, to be sure, a bold work. Perhaps not in technique or style, but in narrative and in form. With its usurpation of the masculine-literary convention and its constant attempts to explore the depths of the metafictional whirlpool, Pacifico’s latest effort does not lack for confidence. And while oftentimes this conviction is both well-earned and well-used, there are more than a few who will perhaps find reason enough to get out of the water. Ultimately, The Women I Love spends so much time exploring what it isn’t that the reader struggles to find out what it is, even as the amusing story of an amusing man falls into shape around the evolving forms of novelistic convention and societal change.

This review has been updated to reflect this was a work of translation.

The Women I Love
By Francisco Pacifico
Translated By Elizabeth Harris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published December 07, 2021

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