In 2009 Padgett Powell published a book called The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, which was written pretty much entirely in the, you know, interrogative mood, meaning it was made up of a series of questions — the whole book. It seems like a post-modern trick, doesn’t it? How do you tell a story with every line inflected up in that way? Did it remind people of that book by Georges Perec that didn’t use the letter “e”? Does the reader ever get past the conceit/constraint? Does it add anything to the story? Who can say? Well, Spanish novelist Javier Marías’ captivatingly strange new book, The Infatuations, is a little less invested in its trickery, perhaps, but it could have almost been called The Subjunctive Mood. Students of Spanish can probably clarify the finer points of the subjunctive for us, but it’s a grammatical mood used to express states of unreality, possibility, uncertainty, wishes or actions that have not yet occurred. In English, the verb tenses are often altered from what they would normally be in order to convey the uncertainty or not-yet-having-happenedness of things. Large sections of dialogue in The Infatuations are written in the subjunctive, or the conditional — not sure which, both? — with spoken sections introduced with “he would have replied” or “he might have said one day.”
Why would that be?
In part, because the narrator, a woman named Maria, is imagining much of the spoken exchanges between the other characters. She’s forced to do that because, it’s not much of a spoiler to say, there’s a murder at the center of the novel. The second sentence alludes to the killing. Maria sees a picture in the paper of a man who “had been stabbed several times, with his shirt half off, and about to become a dead man, if he wasn’t dead already in his own absent consciousness, a consciousness that never returned: his last thought must have been that the person stabbing him was doing so by mistake and for no reason, that is senselessly, and what’s more, not just once, but over and over, with intention of erasing him from the world and expelling him from the earth without further delay, right there and then.” Sentences roll on like that. Rippling, darting sideways, circling back on themselves and pressing to the finish.
Post-modern flags are raised, perhaps, because — though there’s thankfully no character named Javier Marías after the author, there is a central character named Javier, who’s a close friend of the murdered man, and the narrator is named Maria. Make of that what you will.
The Infatuations is an impressively literary thriller of sorts. The characters ruminate on stories, novels and plays — ones by Balzac, Shakespeare, Dumas, mainly, tales of murder, justice, betrayal, suffering and guilt. This is perhaps less unrealistic than it seems: Maria works at a publishing house, and she spends a lot of time with writers, most of whom she finds needy, annoying and inane. One of the writers that Marías does bring to mind here his Jorge Luis Borges, particularly Borges’ story “The Secret Miracle,” which is about a writer who is set to die before a firing squad and who prays to be given time to finish his work, and he finds his wish has been granted, only the year of time he is given occurs in a sort of frozen reality between the moment the bullets of the firing squad are fired and when they finally hit their target. In essence he’s left to contemplate the single instant of his death for an entire year. It’s his wish, but it’s also a kind of devilish torture.
“The Secret Miracle” is evoked because that moment of death — the one after the guy gets stabbed a bunch and right before he actually dies — is speculated about, obsessed over really, at length by the narrator. And she imagines the victim’s wife trying to imagine what went on in the dying man’s mind. She imagines the victim having a conversation in which he imagines his demise. There are layers of imaginings. The narrator meditates on the way that the manner in which we die somehow colors the whole of our lives, at least in the eyes of those who survive us.
Shades of Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment loom over the book too, with long philosophical explorations of the meaning of murder, the debt of guilt and the pervasiveness of lawlessness. “There are so many unpunished crimes in the world,” reflects Maria, or is it Marías?, at one point.
What all of the subjunctive convolutions and all of the meta-literary business end up doing is to draw extra attention to the potential not-having-happenedness of all writing, all stories. Fiction is already an act of suspended disbelief or dream-weaving, but this fiction is fiction about the fiction of fiction, and how all of our interactions and relationships involve a degree of storytelling and fictiveness.
Imagining your way into other people’s lives — the central act of writing and reading fiction — becomes part of the subject here. “It’s never easy to put yourself in a non-existent situation, I can’t understand how so many people spend their whole life pretending,” writes Marías And elsewhere “We do tend to believe things while we’re hearing or reading them. Afterwards, it’s another matter, when the book is closed and the voice stops speaking.” And: “Anything anyone tells you becomes absorbed into you, becomes part of your consciousness, even if you don’t believe it or know that it never happened and is pure invention.”
The details and stories we do and don’t believe are all bound up in a story — a mystery, really — about a murder.
As Maria tries to make sense of that murder that we learn of in the opening paragraphs of the book, slyly interrogating those she suspects of being involved, secretly listening in on conversations, she keeps coming up against the difficulty of ever getting to the bottom of what others say.
“His narrative or retelling had started out that way,” things the narrator, “as a mere illustration of my conjectures, a verbalization of my suspicions, and had, as far as I was concerned, imperceptibly taken on an air or aura of truth, I had started listening to it as it it were an out-and-out confession and was true. There was still the possibility that it wasn’t.”
Her confusion is our confusion. And the uncertainty is part of the pleasure, part of what holds our attention. And then there’s this: “I would never know more than what he told me, and so I would never know anything for sure; yes, it’s ridiculous.”