Hybrid Maintenance

Mac's Problem BY Enrique Vila-Matas. New Directions. Paperback, 256 pages. $16.

The cover of Mac's Problem

In English, concision may generally be the best policy, but in the case of Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas’s new (or newly translated) metanovel, one might opt for the more laborious UK title—Mac and His Problem—over New Directions’ American rendering, Mac’s Problem. The latter really only goes in one direction, and it is clear early on that Mac indeed has a problem. Though we first meet him in the guise of a budding writer—a beginner, he calls himself, diligently apprenticing in his handsome Barcelona study—it quickly becomes apparent that our hero, a voracious reader who was a lawyer (or was it a contractor?) before getting sacked, is not as competent upstairs as even the average loser in the “literature of disappointment” genre. The reason for his recent unemployment—drink? ineptitude? the downwardly spiraling Spanish economy? his knack for quoting rather gnomic Wallace Stevens lines?—is as fuzzy as his thinking. In a book that is obsessed, inter alia, with the use of epigraphs—more on which later—the one that kicks off Mac’s Problem, by Joe Brainard, casts a long shadow over the pages to come: “I remember that I almost always went dressed as a hobo or a ghost. Once I went as a skeleton.” None of the three is exactly a growth opportunity, even if Mac, over the course of this book, tries each one on for size.

The UK title provides a slight twist: It’s not just that Mac has a problem; where Mac ends and his problem begins is increasingly called into question. The diary he is writing (the pages of which we are reading) seems in part a way to shore up his own reality, which is one reason he says again and again that he must resist at all costs having this project turn into a novel, with all the fictionality that form implies. Sometimes the diary’s superiority is a source of comedy. Visiting his sister, Mac notes his “tendency to spout long, rambling sentences which, for a few days now, I think I’ve been saying out loud in order to commit them to memory and record them in the diary, something which, fortunately, hasn’t yet happened.” Other times, it’s philosophical and vexing. “I still don’t know quite what made me think of all of this,” Mac confides, “but a diary exists as a lasting record of what we were thinking on any given day, just in case, in the future, on rereading whatever we told ourselves that morning, we discover that the things we wrote down without a second thought are now the only rocks we can cling to.”

Having the title character voice such a curious goal (in a novel, no less), and then teasing out its implications, is par for the course for a writer like Vila-Matas and his highly self-conscious brand of conceptualism, and it runs parallel with an equally odd desire on Mac’s part to create a perfectly complete book that appears to be “posthumous” and “unfinished.” He states that ambition in the opening lines of Mac’s Problem, then repeats it 224 pages later, when citing Georges Perec’s 53 Days, a novel about an incomplete novel that the Oulipo figure died while writing. Wherever Mac’s literary talents may lie, originality isn’t among them. “We come into this world in order to repeat what those who came before us also repeated,” he writes.

Vila-Matas takes the statement literally, often repeating material two and three times in the course of the book, and he gleefully borrows what he can from a number of models: Perec’s nesting-doll narratives, Bernhard’s acid humor, the promiscuity of fact and fiction in Marcel Schwob’s imaginary lives, even the rootlessness in Malamud’s middle-period novel The Fixer. Just as that work leaned heavily on the memoirs of an unjustly imprisoned Russian Jew (so heavily that it drew claims of plagiarism when it appeared), Mac turns on its protagonist’s decision to rewrite an early novel authored by one of his neighbors, a celebrated novelist named Sánchez, which emerges as a kind of book within the book.

The purloined work in question, titled Walter’s Problem, is a stew of plot so absurd—a purported memoir of a ventriloquist who murders a barber from Seville in Lisbon with something called a Javan sunshade, which I think is an umbrella?—that you can imagine Raymond Roussel rejecting it as far-fetched. Each chapter of Walter’s Problem begins with a portentous epigraph à la The Red and the Black (and, like Stendhal, Sánchez seems to have invented a number of them out of thin air). Each chapter is written in a different voice: one as a kind of fake Cheever, another an ersatz Hemingway, another an imitation Jean Rhys, another a badly ghosted Borges. And so on. Yet even bad prose can have its haunting effect on a reader like our hero: Mac’s Problem is at once a love letter to literature and a cautionary tale about the dangers for those who fall under its spell.

Vila-Matas is the grand man of Spanish avant-gardish writing, and he charges the various tensions in his hybridized book: the artificial nature of plot and the apparent triviality of day-to-day existence, how life imitates art and art imitates life. He has fun with the vogue for autofiction—one character relates that Sánchez’s new ambition is “to emulate a certain Norwegian writer whom some misguided critics were comparing with Proust”—and especially authenticity (“the holy grail of bad literature,” Vila-Matas called it in an interview in El País). Adding a wrinkle is the fact—though it’s mentioned nowhere in Mac’s Problem—that the memoir/novel that Mac rewrites is based on Una casa para siempre (1988), a hybrid work about a famous ventriloquist by Vila-Matas himself.

Mac’s quixotic relation to Sánchez gives a strange levity to Vila-Matas’s book, which too often is comical without being very funny. For a hybrid work, it’s not all that hybrid: The philosophical asides jam awkwardly with Mac’s slapstick paranoia. But if its rooms are too capacious, Mac’s Problem still boasts an impressive architecture, one that is admirable even if you have no desire to live there.

Eric Banks is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.