The Characters in 'The Book of Unknown Americans' Are Silenced by the Voice

Though Cristina Henriquez's entrancing prose promises to save this poorly plotted and contrived mess, it ultimately dooms it.

The Book of Unknown Americans

Publisher: Vintage
Length: 286 Pages
Author: Cristina Henriquez
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-03

At some point a gray, lifeless kind of secular humanism became the de facto religion of literary fiction. Writers such as Alice Munroe and Richard Bausch and their scads of imitators, eager for recognition, made it not only fashionable but a moral imperative that fiction reveal the wonder in life by addressing only the quotidian aspects of it. Thus, an understanding of the great mysteries of identity comes, say, only after a portent-laden encounter with a friend unseen, unmentioned and unsought for 20 years, the weight of revelation carried on a few forgettable details magnified by authorial contrivance to cosmic significance. A rueful affair leads inevitably to a life-altering but misty epiphany about the nature of interconnection and empathy.

It's a spiritually shallow kind of fiction, musty with the smell of the attic, meant both to instruct its readers on proper morality and to perpetuate the myth that enlightenment is less the result of something awesome and previously incomprehensible that is met and tackled, than the natural outcome of a dull life merely weathered. Awe and mystery are made commonplace, even democratic: the idea is that life as anyone knows it, is somehow life as everyone knows it.

The Book of Unknown Americans fits squarely within this tradition, eager to prove that even the most unexceptionable of immigrant experiences is every bit the equal of the most harrowing. What begins as the story of a Mexican family, the Rivera's, moving to Delaware in order to provide their brain-damaged daughter Maribel with an education available only in America, soon intertwines with the story of Mayor, a high school outcast whose family lives next door. Slowly, surely, his and Maribel's awkward friendship blossoms into romance, though Maribel's parents object.

Alma, her mother, is particularly opposed: she still blames herself for the accident that led to Maribel's current state and has grown impossibly protective of her daughter, almost to the point of paranoia. Though her fear is not entirely unjustified – at one point Mayor's classmate Garret sexually assaults Maribel – her guilt is such that she cannot bring herself to confide even a whit of her worry to her husband, Arutro. It takes a series of misunderstandings and coincidences to force her to trust, but her hesitance ultimately costs them their new lives.

Framing these events are a series of character sketches that attempt to flesh out the cast of neighbors who inhabit the Riveras' apartment complex. All are immigrants, all are from different countries in Latin America, and each is allowed three or four pages to explain how they arrived in America, why they remain, and what this new home of theirs means to them. It's an ambitious conceit meant to demonstrate both the diversity and ultimate universality of the immigrant experience; it's also an entirely disingenuous one. For as much as Henriquez might intend for these vignettes to humanize these “invisible Americans” – "the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know...” as one character identifies himself – she succeeds only in lending them a smidgeon of color.

In the main narrative they remain ghosts who drift in and out of the lives of Mayor and Alma, names that have been soldered to a one-note character trait or a physical defect. That they remain “the ones no one even wants to know” is less because of audience prejudice than because of authorial choice and botched construction. Henriquez has forsaken their stories, the truly interesting ones – tales of a priest turned drug dealer and playboy, of a failed actress who has found contentment in mediocrity, of a frustrated boxer who bucks against his own foolish decision to become a landlord at the cost of his dream – to focus instead on a story of teenage love and of parental worry. She seems to think that stories of high-school heartache and a threatened familial love, being so much more common, possess a general appeal that will universalize the immigrant experience.

It's a miscalculation, and a grave one.

For rather than make the immigrant's experience widely relatable she merely makes it palatable. All the most harrowing elements – racially motivated violence, the fear of deportation, the constant challenges to rightful residence, alienation and the loss of identity that comes with it, poverty – are either sanded of their edges or made so peripheral and nebulous that they fail to register as even possible. When one apartment resident rails about how tired he is “of being called a spic, a nethead, a cholo”, when he asserts that “(he) doesn't want people to look at (him) and see a criminal or someone they can spit on or beat up”, it carries no weight. Not because this kind of abuse isn't the ugly lot of many but because Henriquez has done nothing to make it the lot of her characters.

If Mayor is taunted by his classmates it's not because of his background but because he is awkward and surly. When Arturo and Rafael, Mayor's father, lose their jobs it's not because of racist policies in the workplace, but because the companies they work for have been devastated by the economic depression of 2008 and the business has shuttered.

Again and again Henriquez has a chance to tackle the headiest elements of the transplant's life and again and again she ducks away from it. She seems afraid to showcase the worst of their plight, afraid to subject her beloved characters and her beloved audience to real duress. She seems afraid even to force her creations into contact with the outside world; too often the apartment complex the Riveras and Toros and their neighbors inhabit seems a kind of narrative petri dish or an isolated country on the fringes of reality.

Lip service is again paid to the idea that there's some tension between the immigrants and the rest of America, as when Alma confesses to feeling “simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore,” but none of Alma's interactions justify these sentiments. Those rare outsiders she does meet – a bus driver, a police officer, a state appointed translator – handle her as well as might be expected, given obvious gaps in language; certainly no one is ever dismissive or derisive. Many are even helpful, even contrite when their assistance is obviously limited.

The only real challenge to the apartment complex's status quo comes in the form of Garret and his father, but because of Heniquez's clumsy writing their threat feels entirely abstract. Garret exists almost solely to inflame Alma's guilt and prepare the climax of the novel, Garret's father only so that a faceless, nameless evil that smacks of a stand in for some kind of generic racism can coldly murder the saintly Arturo and push the novel to its bloody close. Nothing about it sits right -- not the manufactured and unlikely string of coincidences necessary to force that final confrontation, not the fact that this climax is relayed to the reader only after the fact and least of all the tone.

For too long the novel's focus has been about how Alma's guilt and paranoia have hampered rather than assisted in Maribel's recovery. Too much has been made about the conflict between Mayor's generous, open love of Maribel and Alma's fearful, cloying love to justify the author's sudden turn to cataclysmic and prejudiced violence. It fits thematically in some ways – again it is Alma's desire to shield her daughter that ultimately dooms her entire family – but it reads unnaturally, as though taken from another story. As if Henriquez decided too late that she wanted to address the darkest possible aspect of her characters' situation.

At no point does the transition feel earned. Indeed, it's in fact so jarring that it suddenly makes clear why all of the supporting cast and their stories feel promising but empty: they were entirely tacked on. Nowhere is this more evident than in the closing passage, which takes place from Arturo's point-of-view and ends with a declaration of undying love for America. If it were lead up to properly, it might present a perfect capstone to that other story about the challenges of the pilgrim. Here, though, it feels alien, for Arturo has been given so little development. He's been kind, patient and wise, but his interactions have only ever been with Alma, his thoughts never voiced; his interactions with the rest of the country have been limited to his job, which he finds degrading. To force this last bit of character development upon him, especially after his gruesome demise, is to make him a saint and to make his death the martyr’s death. It is also, along with so many other misguided and shoehorned elements, an attempt to make the novel something it's clearly not comfortable being.

It's not that Henriquez isn't a capable writer. As trite as Mayor and Maribel's love story is (it feels too much like something lifted from a Nicholas Spark novel), it's competently paced and even includes a few passages of resonant beauty. When Mayor steals his father's car and drives Maribel out to the beach to witness her first snowfall, Henriquez demonstrates not just an understanding of how those lusty feelings can be transcendent, but how they transfigure every element of the lovers' world. “We stood side by side and looked out at the vastness, the possibility of everything out there. Within the universe, I felt like a speck, but within myself I felt gigantic, the salt air filling my lungs, the roaring of the waves rushing in my ears,” muses the normally ineloquent Mayor. Even Alma often finds herself driven to poetics. English to her sounds like “broken... shards of glass, beautiful from a certain angle and jagged from another.” She does not simply speak, instead “words (crawl) up through (her) throat.”

Henriquez has an undeniable talent for investing the mundane with dimension. She has no trouble finding the texture in what seems to everyone else flat. But again, it feels like a cheat. At no point in the story does Alma present such linguistic abilities when dealing with others, not even when speaking in her native Spanish, not even when she's in a comfortable situation. Her actions never suggest that lurking beneath her bumbling exterior there's the soul of a poet. Similarly with Mayor. Again and again Henriquez invests characters lacking in sensitivity and observation an eloquence at odds with everything else she shows of them, all so she can invest the mundane with a sense of importance that is not due it, and she lends her characters a humanity she seems to feel they might be lacking, were they less intelligent.

Much as this makes for an immediately more readable novel, it makes for a less enduring work, one that seems less and less confident the more it's considered. It's as if Henriquez does not believe in the power of her own story and so bolts on elements, themes and characters from outside in order to lend the story an aura it has not earned. It's as if she doesn't trust her characters to speak for themselves, as if they might undersell the world she has made for them, so she forces her own words upon them.

Her motive may be pure but the fact that she will not let her characters speak honestly of the world's they inhabit betrays them rather than saves them. They are rendered every bit as invisible as their real life counterparts. By book's end they are left as unknown as they were at the beginning.

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