“A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorized it with his feet,” cultural critic Lauren Elkin writes in Flâneuse, her 2018 work that wrangles the idea of urban wandering without a fixed destination from its male implications.
Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Thomas De Quincey — a few of the figures most associated with the flâneur — retake center stage in master craftsman Antonio Muñoz Molina’s To Walk Alone in the Crowd. Over its 400+ pages, the novel provides the reader with the far-reaching ruminations of a witty middle-aged man taking long walks through cities. His thoughts run beyond the point of overload and into the realm of being talked at while at a party filled with writers and want-to-be-writers. His intellect is never in question. It just tends to get annoying.
“He is the restless archeologist of the present, of the moment when what is valuable or pristine turns into debris, when the words and pictures of an advertisement pass from ubiquity to nonexistence,” the writer reflects in the third-person in one of the many statements of intent that pervade the novel. Like Don Delillo’s mind-boggling classic White Noise, a novel it thematically parallels, To Walk Alone in the Crowd brings elements of modern life to the page that go ignored on a conscious level out of a fundamental need to filter the deluge of stimulus to remain sane.
The pages are filled with vivid descriptions of discarded flyers, snippets of overheard conversation, and a barrage of references requiring Wikipedia close at hand. Remember the killer clown panic five years ago? In the novel, it makes a comeback from the lost archives of incessant recent history.
Few writers would attempt this type of exploratory work and fewer would be able to pull it off. One of Spain’s most celebrated contemporary authors, Muñoz Molina makes it work more often than not–if you give him and his unnamed narrator an inordinate amount of patience. Most fiction is considerate of the reader, if for no other reason than an author’s well-founded fear of beta readers putting the book down and telling their family and friends to take home something else from the bookstore.
This is certainly not the case with To Walk Alone in the Crowd. “I do not write because I have anything urgent to say,” the narrator muses early in the novel, “I write for the pleasure of filling the white pages of a notebook that lies before me.” The lackadaisical approach comes through loud and clear. A writing experiment is drawn up across several hundred pages and, presumably, miles of sidewalk. The walk from the bottom tip of Manhattan northward toward a house in the South Bronx where Poe lived for a few of his precarious days — the main event hyped on the book’s back cover — does not start until two-thirds of the way through the text.
“He realized that, more than writing a book, he was assembling a collage made up of hundreds of pages of citations, fragments, sketches, drafts that he had no time to develop,” the narrator reflects about Continental philosopher Walter Benjamin. “The further he went, the harder it became to order the materials into an intelligible shape.”
The intelligible shape of To Walk Alone in the Crowd takes a while to come into focus. The overstimulation is intentional; the moments of unadulterated beauty and clarity that shine through are all the more worth it as a result.
Does any of this sound appealing? Do you want to read something that only further reminds you about how exhausting the day-to-day tends to be during the early decades of the 21st century? Do you want to follow a smug man’s meandering thoughts, clever as they may be, as he meanders through Madrid and then New York City?
If the answer is no, that is fully understandable. To Walk Alone in the Crowd is not for everyone, especially if literary life paths are not of interest. But those that decide to relinquish hours of their precious free time to this strange novel might find something worthwhile on the stroll.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Penguin Classics. 1985.
Edgar Allen Poe Cottage webpage: Bronx Historical Society.
Elkin, Lauren. Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2018.
Walter Benjamin profile: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.