Rodrigo Fresán elegantly balances the strange with the common.
— Benjamin Woodard
The Invented Part
Translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
Open Letter, 2017
$18.95, 552 pages
The opening of Rodrigo Fresán’s ingenious, postmodern page-turner, The Invented Part, feels something like a soft focused cinematic dream that gradually sharpens. Movie buffs, of which Fresán is a longstanding ally, may conjure an early scene from Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life here: Joseph tells fellow guardian angel Clarence to examine the town of Bedford Falls, but because Clarence hasn’t received his angel’s wings, everything he sees is a blur. It’s only after Joseph assists (“Oh, I forgot. You haven’t got your wings yet”) that shapes emerge, lines taper. Now, imagine that same visual, only textually: a haze of words, a series of threads—on the ideas of beginnings, punctuation marks, and novel construction—that feel unconnected, but which slowly tie together with extraordinary verbal dexterity, seducing the reader into Fresán’s world. Passages like:
To breathe like this: the way they breathed back then, opening and stepping inside one of those books that have the scent of book and not, as noted, the scent of machine and electric engine, of speed and lightness and short sentences, not for the wise power of synthesis but on the crass basis of abbreviation. To breathe differently, slowly and deep down inside. To breathe in books that readers, with any luck if they’re lucky, will come to enjoy like the pure oxygen of a green forest after a long time lost in the black depths of a carbon mine.
create not only a bewitching rhythm via word repetition, but also relay narrative intention: Fresán is interested in stepping both in and out of what we consider linear fiction, of jostling expectations while tunneling deep within scientific and emotional philosophies. And as these intentions comingle, Fresán reveals a scene on a beach, where a young boy (referred to as The Boy) frolics in the water while his parents bicker and read separate copies of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. This boy, “a restless child,” who nearly drowns at that beach, is Fresán’s protagonist, and he grows up to become a respected author—in addition to being The Boy, he is also credited as The Writer, The Lonely Man, and X in various chapters—who, now in his fifties, decides to throw his body into the Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, and become one with the God particle, existing in everything, throughout history, at all time, space, and place.
Why does The Writer/The Boy/X/The Lonely Man decide to do this? He’s depressed. Specifically, he’s fed up with the technological world, of 140 character missives, of seeking answers online rather than asking questions:
“But everything I’m telling you, if you’re so intrigued, you could’ve found out in a matter of seconds via Google…Why didn’t you just do that?”
And the Lonely Man doesn’t have the strength to tell him that, if that’d been the case, they’d never have had that conversation.
He does not feel at home in the world, and so he figures that becoming omnipresent may allow him to adjust history to his liking. Not that The Invented Part doles this information out in a remotely traditionally narrative style. Broken into three sections and seven chapters, the novel spends as much time with its protagonist as it does without, leaping—like a being at one with the universe, perhaps—throughout time and from characters to explain itself in a piecemeal fashion. For example, after the long setup and scene on the beach, Fresán shifts to the present, introducing two young filmmakers (credited as The Young Man and The Young Woman, naturally) constructing a documentary on The Writer, who has recently gone missing. From here, Fresán transitions into a nearly unbroken 100-plus-page block of text that recounts the story of The Writer’s sister’s strange marriage to a man from a clandestine secret society, before again returning to The Young Man and The Young Woman. Such fractures continue until the novel’s final page, and it’s enough to make one think that, due to its pell-mell construction, the book can be consumed in any order. After all, for another chunk of the book, Fresán’s hero discusses Chinese bijis, a genre of literature that roughly translates to “notebook.” Filled with lists, anecdotes, and other curiosities:
… it’s possible to read them not according to any order, opening a path for ourselves, starting at any point and jumping back and forth or up and down or side to side. Beginning at the end and ending at the beginning. The idea is that, one way or another, each reader ends up discovering a story as unique as her reading.
Yet as The Invented Part continues, Fresán’s seemingly scattershot unveiling of detail, while often fulfilling a biji’s requirement of inventories and anecdotes, reveals itself to be extremely controlled, filled with image patterns and references that make the novel impossible to read in any other configuration. This arrangement also lends itself to hours of flipping back through the text, hunting for scenes that overlap, or objects that provide key emotional transformations further down the road, like the wind-up tin toy first found by The Young Man in The Writer’s home, which reappears later (and, in the timeline, earlier) in the hands of a boy at a hospital. The tin man shows up a third time when it is spied in a shop window by a friend of The Writer, Tom, who is told by his young son that the toy should be placed on the cover of his next novel. When Tom reminds his son he’s not a writer, but a musician, his son replies, “That’s here, Papi; but in another of the many space-time wrinkles, you’re a writer.” (It should be noted that both the English and the original Spanish edition of the novel do, in fact, feature renditions of the tin man on their covers.) The toy returns even later, too, but to reveal its significance in these final scenes would be like explaining the prestige of a magic trick. Mentioning that the toy carries a suitcase, however, may be enough of a hint.
In addition to the wind-up traveler, multiple appearances from William S. Burroughs, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Kinks’ Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and F. Scott Fitzgerald and his novel, Tender Is the Night, pockmark the text. This last object not only serves as the favorite book of The Writer’s parents, but also is subject to a lengthy dissection, linking the novel to the parents—famous models who die in a politically-charged hostage situation—through the story of Gerald and Sara Murphy, Fitzgerald’s real-life inspirations, while simultaneously provoking potential critics of Fresán’s novel-in-progress by noting that initial reviews of Tender Is the Night “question[ed] its structure with the long central flashback. And they consider[ed] the decadence and fall of Dick Diver as excessively melodramatic and implausible.” Coincidentally, by this point in the novel, The Invented Part has featured several long diversions (including the analysis of Tender Is the Night), and has done little to explain the “fall” of The Writer. Though these similarities are hardly faults (I’d argue that they make for a more compelling read), Fresán’s self-awareness in these passages is witty and daring, practically taunting potential criticism of his style by beating it to the punch.
This kind of self-awareness materializes many times in The Invented Part, but it never feels precious or hokey. If anything, it merges reader and author, and Fresán’s metacommentary keeps everyone moving toward the same goal. Perhaps this is best achieved when The Writer speaks about his definition of “irrealism,” saying, “If magical realism is realism with irreal retails, then logical irrealism is its twin opposite: irreality with realistic details…And yet, is there anything as irreal as so-called realism?” This idea ties into what the protagonist also sees as “the invented part” of life, described as:
…the part that actually makes something that merely happened into something that should have happened. Something (everything to come, the rest of his life, will spring from that there and then, from that exact moment) more authentic and valuable and pure than the simple and banal and often unsubtle and sloppy truth.
The Invented Part thrives on its ability to construct something out of nothing, making a day at the beach a life-changing event, or placing The Writer/Lonely Man in a hospital, waiting to hear lab results, and letting his mind wander to construct a series of story sketches for a new collection. Rodrigo Fresán elegantly balances the strange with the common, the experimental with the traditional, and the result is one of the most satisfying postmodern novels in recent memory.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Hobart, New South, and Cog. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review Online, Georgia Review, Electric Literature, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.
Hi Benjamin, Like yourself, I’m really taken by this outstanding novel. One thing I didn’t particularly appreciate – all those many sections where the print is next to invisible. What do you make of this? I had trouble reading the light print. Do you see the light print as necessary? Any reflections most appreciated.