In the newly-published translation of The Luminous Novel by the late Uruguayan author Mario Levrero, admirably translated by Annie McDermott, events occur but there is no plot. There is, however, backstory: the narrator, in his 60s, received a Guggenheim grant allowing him to complete a novel, entitled The Luminous Novel, that he had started more than 20 years earlier. The narrator plans a year of leisure, free from financial concerns, within which to complete his novel and he records his preparations to do so in a (400-page) ‘Diary of the Grant’.
This narrator is a hypochondriac; his doctor is called upon to visit his apartment regularly at night to take blood-pressure readings. He is addicted to the plot-driven detective novels he buys by the arm-load at local bookshops and claims telepathic communication with, among others, these booksellers as to new arrivals in that genre.
He is deeply neurotic, obsessively worrying about his relationships with the younger women who unaccountably appear to accompany him on walks to cafés, and he is obsessive about his devotion to playing computer games. He hypothesizes at length about the observed behavior of ants and, noting a dead pigeon on an adjoining rooftop, he concocts a (very) lengthy, repetitive narrative concerning its grieving ‘widow’ and other pigeons who are putative members of the ‘family’ periodically visiting the decomposing corpse.
And, most importantly, he recounts innumerable dreams, some sexual, some ‘spiritual’, but all mundane. It is these ‘luminous’ dreamt and telepathic experiences that are to serve as the foundation of his novel.
The narrator leads us through uncountable quotidian moments, but – no spoiler alert needed here because this is obvious from the very beginning – he does not lead us toward the completion of his novel. The final portion of The Luminous Novel consists only of his much earlier stab at it.
The narrator’s problem is not writer’s block. In his ‘Diary of the Grant’, words pour forth in off-the-top-of-the-head torrents. Nor is this a case of common authorial procrastination, stopping to get another cup of coffee or to check the ‘net again. What we experience in plowing through The Luminous Novel is cosmic-scale procrastination, a gargantuan, meandering, recursive narrative that goes nowhere.
There are, of course, other novels about ‘not writing’. In 2009’s The Anthologist, for example, Nicholson Baker’s narrator is unable to complete a preface to a collection of his stories. In 2011’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner conjures up a young American in Madrid on a fellowship to write poetry; instead, feeling that he is a fraud as a poet, he socializes (misunderstanding most of what is said to him) and engages in romantic relationships, often lying about traumas to gain sympathy. In both novels there is a literary structure in which inherently interesting events occur.
Here, however, nothing literary is afoot. Levrero’s narrator simply passes the time (mostly the nights, as he regularly plays video games until dawn and then sleeps much of the day). Perhaps Levrero’s goal is to show us, often in a slyly humorous way, that real life is not imbued with literary structure and does not end in the culmination of luminous projects. As is the case with several of the narrator’s acquaintances, life simply stops.
We observe, in granular detail, this narrator wasting his time. Are we likewise wasting our time in reading this novel?
I don’t think so.
There is something dreamy about this novel, obstacles being thrown against nested objectives. Before the narrator or the dreamer can accomplish ‘A’ he is met with ‘B’, a new objective to be tackled first. In his famous paradox, Greek philosopher Zeno proposes a logical conundrum – before I can walk a mile I must first walk a half-mile, but I can’t do that without first walking a quarter-mile and so on, infinitely, such that I can never get started. Perhaps Zeno is showing us something of dream logic as well?
In The Unconsoled (1995), Kazuo Ishiguru posits a pianist arriving for the first time in a Central European town to give a lecture and a concert; in a dream-like state of foggy self-awareness, he is continuously met with intervening requests and new obligations. We have a tale of dream-logic that succeeds because it is wrapped in a cocoon of structure and beautiful writing.
This cannot be said of The Luminous Novel.
My theory is that what saves this work is Levrero’s habit of regularly apologizing for having forced the reader to slog through the boring and repetitive narrative. Indeed, he quotes his hypothetical reader, stating to the narrator “… what I don’t understand is why the hell you’re dumping all this rubbish in your novel rather than talking it through with your therapist.”
Levrero was a highly respected author, recognized as a master of his craft. Perhaps he was intentionally creating a novel that is boring and pointless on a grand scale as a way of cutting through literary filters and holding up a mirror to the bare this-ness of our daily lives. In the end, though, in order to test this theory readers will need to pay the price of admission.